By Jennifer W. Sanchez
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
More than 150 people Friday showed up at the first public hearing on the only bill in the Utah Legislature that attempts to take a comprehensive approach toward curbing illegal immigration.
The crowd was sharply divided, with about half supporting SB81 and half opposing it. The split mirrors the attitudes of Utahns in general on the issue, according to a recent Tribune poll.
The Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee spent two hours taking testimony and debating the bill before passing it on a 6-2 party line vote, with Republicans favoring it. SB81 attempts to enlist state and local officers to enforce federal immigration law and force some employers to verify if workers are eligible to work in the United States.
Three Utah Highway Patrol officers stood guard during the hearing - the biggest show of security so far in the lawmaking session that began Jan. 21.
Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, is the sponsor of the 16-page bill - modeled after an Oklahoma law that is considered one of the toughest in the nation. Hickman said because of congressional inaction it's up to the states to fix illegal immigration problems. Utah needs to "get moving" on approving laws that will help enforce immigration laws, he said.
Sen. Chris Buttars concurred. "This has been forced on us," the West Jordan Republican said. "We need to do something."
Hickman amended the bill to eliminate a provision repealing in-state college tuition for eligible undocumented students. He also said he will support SB97, which would create an immigration task force.
"We've accomplished a very small beginning in getting this legislation passed," he said after the meeting.
SB81 would mandate an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow state or local officers to perform certain functions of immigration agents, force public employers and their contractors to verify the documentation status of all workers using a federal online system and make it a Class A misdemeanor to transport or shelter undocumented immigrants.
The bill would also mandate that the state verify a person's U.S. documentation status before issuing them a liquor or private club license.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, who opposed SB81, said he had a concern that people and community agencies might be prosecuted for helping undocumented immigrants.
He said he knows illegal immigration is a top concern for Utahns but he wants the issue to be studied to figure out the best approach.
"This is not going to fix the problems," McCoy said of SB81.
Bill supporters from the American Legion, Utah Minuteman Project and the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, which is made up of several anti-illegal immigration groups, said the proposal would stop attracting undocumented workers to the state and end what they claimed was a crisis in Utah of document fraud and identity theft.
Representatives from the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, Utah Food Industry Association, United Way of Salt Lake and University of Utah spoke in opposition to the bill.
Theresa Martinez, a member of Utahns for the American Dream, which represents some 30 businesses and groups, said U.S. laws at one time enforced laws that enslaved blacks, denied women the right to vote and allowed the genocide of American Indians.
"Laws can be unjust," she said.