By Steven Oberbeck
Stating it is time for Utah's silent majority to be heard, a group of Utah business leaders has organized to urge the Legislature to hold off on enacting what they term "onerous and burdensome" immigration laws.
The newly organized Immigration Policy Coalition, formed by organizations that include the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Manufacturers Association and the Utah Farm Bureau, wants legislators to step back, consider their efforts' negative effects on business and instead study immigration issues with an eye toward ensuring the availability of legal immigrant labor.
Although that rationale prompted a legislator who is pushing for immigration law reform to say the time is past to expect federal help, the coalition continues to believe that "immigration primarily is a federal issue."
"And we need to encourage them to act," Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said at a news conference Tuesday staged in the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. Utah "needs to act only in those areas where we can move forward" on a state level.
Beattie said a new array of different state laws would only add to the confusion and uncertainty that businesses already are facing, especially those operating in several different states. "We need to step back and make sure any laws that are enacted won't hurt Utah's businesses and the state's economy."
With that in mind, the coalition is throwing its support behind Senate Bill 97, which calls for the formation of an Immigration Task Force to convene and study the issue. "Immigration is an extremely complex issue and we need to take a sensible approach," Beattie said.
But Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said forming a task force is just a way for legislators to put off dealing with immigration issues.
Donnelson is sponsoring several immigration measures, including one to revoke a 2002 law that allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Utah high schools to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. He also is sponsoring a bill to repeal a law that allows undocumented immigrants to get a driving-privilege card and obtain insurance.
"We're going to have to do something," Donnelson said. "The federal government isn't moving on the issue and they don't appear to want to do anything."
Donnelson also is sponsoring a bill that would empower Utah law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents on routine traffic stops, although police agencies oppose that measure. And he has introduced another bill to require employers to verify the immigration status of all workers by using a free online federal system.
Yet Tom Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, pointed out the federal verification system so far has proved to be inadequate.
"If we can get a system that works - one that grants businesses some kind of immunity if it is used - then you wouldn't have to mandate its use to our members," Bingham said. "Everyone would want to use it."
By stepping back and thoroughly studying the issues before burdensome laws are enacted, Utah can emerge to lead the nation in enacting laws that are both sensible, effective and humane, said Jeff Edwards of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah. "We have an opportunity to do it right and do it well."