By Jennifer W. Sanchez
The Salt Lake Tribune
The Senate is expected to pass a comprehensive anti-illegal immigration bill today, despite Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr.'s misgivings about the measure.
Following an on-and-off debate that spanned much of Thursday, SB81 was approved in an initial 21-8 vote. All Republicans, except Sen. Kevin Van Tassell of Vernal, supported the bill. All Democrats, except Sen. Gene Davis of Salt Lake City, voted against it.
With such a lopsided tally, the bill is expected to pass out of the Senate easily in a final vote today.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, made amendments Thursday to soften SB81 in a bid to win passage. The changes came after discussions with business leaders and church officials.
"It has become necessary for the states to take care of this problem," Hickman said of illegal immigration. "This is not an issue of race or national origin, but it is simply that we are a country of laws and we expect the citizens of the United States to obey those laws."
It may still not be soft enough for some.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. declined to say Thursday whether he would veto the bill, but expressed clear misgivings about it during his monthly KUED news conference.
"It's inappropriate for a state to start creating a patchwork of policies [on something] that is generally a federal issue and is crying out for a federal fix," Huntsman said, predicting that federal immigration reform will come after the November presidential election.
The final Senate vote and likely House nod on the bill will determine if Huntsman can actually make a veto stick. It takes 20 Senate votes and 50 House votes to override a veto.
Although the bill's framework was based on an Oklahoma law that has been hailed as one of the toughest in the nation, SB81 was altered to fit Utah's needs, Hickman said.
Among other things, the bill would enlist state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration statutes, force public employers and their contractors to verify the legal status of workers and make it a Class A misdemeanor to transport or shelter undocumented immigrants.
President John Valentine, R-Orem, supported SB81. "It's a difficult balance between the rule of law and compassion," he said. "Sen. Hickman's bill [strives] to achieve that balance."
But Valentine and other senators say they still have concerns about other elements of the bill - such as burdening landlords and health care providers to verify people's documentation status.
"That does appear to me to be their job," Valentine said.
Hickman said the bill doesn't force landlords to verify the legal status of potential tenants, but they could be charged if they knowingly rent to undocumented families.
"In their own best interest they would probably want to [do it] voluntarily," he said of checking documents.
The Salt Lake Chamber, which has 4,600-members statewide, announced its support for the revised bill on Thursday.
"While much of these objectives will require federal action, your modified bill will help us achieve a more sensible approach to immigration policies in this state," Lane Beattie, the chamber's President and CEO, said in a public letter to Hickman.
After the vote, bill opponents said they were surprised it passed, considering that at least some lawmakers still had concerns and unanswered questions about the legislation.
"Frankly, I don't see where the gentler and kinder side of the bill is," said Antonella Romero Packard, a Republican and Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force spokeswoman.