By Robert Gehrke
and Jennifer W. Sanchez
The Salt Lake Tribune
Senators are reworking parts of a comprehensive immigration package to make the measure more palatable to the business community and religious leaders, its sponsor said Tuesday.
Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, said he pushed back the Senate debate on his SB81 - scheduled Tuesday - until Thursday because some of the refinements to his anti-illegal immigration bill are still being made.
"We're trying to get this bill to be a reasonable piece of legislation that is [as] business friendly as possible and yet maintains the standards we have set forth in the bill and I think we are at that point now," Hickman said.
The revised measure would be a far cry from the original version modeled after an Oklahoma immigration law described as one of the toughest in the nation.
The changes would include revisions requested by leaders from several churches, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that protect the church from liability if they provide food, clothing and other charitable or humanitarian services to undocumented immigrants.
Mormon officials, as well as other religious leaders, have been consulted on the changes and Hickman said he believes they will approve.
"I feel extremely comfortable with the bill and I think what we will end up with here is a really fine piece of legislation that will address the immigration issue on a statewide basis, because our constituents are demanding it," Hickman said.
Hickman has also been working closely with Lane Beattie, a former Senate president and president of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
While Beattie said there's no agreement between the 4,600-member Chamber and Hickman, he is "pleased" with the senator's willingness to listen and discuss business concerns of the measure.
He declined to discuss specifics, but said Hickman has agreed to remove penalties for businesses employing undocumented workers.
"We're working around some other issues on his bill," Beattie said.
Bill opponents and supporters who filled the Senate public gallery Tuesday said they understand the way politics work, so they'll return Thursday.
"Hopefully, there will be no more delays; he's had a lot of time to work on it," said Alex Segura, founder and member of Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group.
Antonella Romero Packard was on the Hill with Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force and Latin-American Chamber of Commerce members in hopes of hearing the SB81 debate. She said some people have to rearrange their schedules to be at the Capitol, but "we're going to be there whenever it's brought up."
Senate President John Valentine believes the revised bill would have the votes to get through the Senate.
"What Senator Hickman has done is taken some of the harshness in some of the other states and softened that harshness without losing the core, the essence of what he is trying to accomplish," Valentine said.
Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said that if the bill gets through the Senate it will pass the House.
There are more than 20 pieces of legislation pending in the Legislature relating to immigration reform.
The sponsors have said time and again that the state is taking action because the federal government has failed to act.
That point was brought home as Utah Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch both offered a bleak assessment for the prospects for congressional action.
"An honest assessment is that certainly this session nothing other than continuing appropriations [for border enforcement] is going to happen," said Bennett, estimating it could be five years before anything comprehensive is done. "We'll see what a new president and new Congress is going to do."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said last week that he expects there will be federal legislation next year and is concerned about unintended consequences of states taking their own approach on the issue.
"The worst thing we can do in the meantime is become a patchwork of different approaches to immigration state by state," he said. "I think that represents a lot of unpredictability and uncertainty, particularly for small business and those that are looking to do businesses across borders. I just don't think that's a good outcome."
Highlights of the proposed legislation currently:
- Allowed state and local partnership with federal agencies to enforce immigration law.
- Penalized businesses for employing undocumented workers.
- Provided penalties for people transporting, sheltering or "harboring" undocumented residents.
- Repealed in-state college tuition for eligible children of undocumented residents.
- Dropped proposed tuition-repeal provision.
Among known revisions now in the works:
- Would remove penalties for businesses.
- Would eliminate penalties for "harboring," sheltering or transporting undocumented residents.