Utah lawmakers hesitant to tackle immigration laws

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Only a year removed from contentious battles over immigration laws that divided Utah lawmakers, there is little enthusiasm on either side to revisit the issue.So far, a bill meant to strengthen a law requiring employers to verify the legal status of workers has generated the most enthusiasm among legislators. Yet even that proposal barely garnered the support needed for the sponsor, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, to pursue it.Sandstrom said he actually planned to scrap the bill until Gov. Gary Herbert signaled his backing earlier this week. But even with the governor’s support, the House on Wednesday declined to consider the bill that sought to strengthen penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.It was largely thought to be the only immigration legislation that had a realistic chance of passage this year.Last year, lawmakers approved a package of reform bills that were bookended by an enforcement measure and a guest-worker program. Both of those bills are now in legal limbo.The enforcement measure, which Sandstrom sponsored and Herbert signed into law in March, requires people to prove their citizenship if they’re arrested for serious crimes ranging from drug offenses to murder. It also gives police discretion to check citizenship on traffic infractions and other lesser offenses.A federal judge put the law on hold in May after civil rights groups sued the state. The U.S. Justice Department joined the lawsuit in November. A hearing in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City is set for Feb. 17.The guest-worker program, meanwhile, requires an unlikely federal waiver before it goes into effect in 2013. It would allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the state if they register and pay a fine.This year, two separate bills have been filed to repeal the guest-worker program. But a third of the way into the 45-day session, neither bill has been given a committee hearing.The sponsor of one of those bills, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said the guest-worker program is “clearly unconstitutional, and something has to be done.” To address the issue, he wants to replace it with a system that, among other things, encourages illegal immigrants to return to their home country and return through legal means.”Right now, there’s no way for them to get square with the law,” Herrod said.But even Herrod said his intent is not to scratch at wounds still raw from the 2011 session.”We don’t want something like we had last year. It was divisive, and it was exhausting,” he said.The sponsor of the guest-worker program, Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said it was an essential part of a package that became a national model. Scrapping it now would be pointless, especially since the federal government has taken notice, even if it hasn’t granted a waiver, he said.Additionally, time is proving that the program is not the beacon for illegal immigrants that critics feared, Wright said.”We haven’t drained Mexico City of its population.” he said. “Everything they said would happen hasn’t happened, and everything they said wouldn’t happen is happening.”

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