Utah Legislature Passes Trio Of Well-Intentioned But Misguided Immigration Bills


In recent weeks, a bipartisan approach to immigration policy in Utah has gained widespread national attention as a collaborative, pragmatic effort with the active involvement of many different stakeholders and communities. But late last week, months of hard work on the part of Utah state legislators in pursuit of inventive and effective immigration solutions ended in disappointment as a trio of misguided immigration bills were quickly introduced and passed by Utah’s state legislature with little opportunity for public input or debate. Despite the good intentions of so many, the results of this effort do nothing to address the need for common sense immigration policies that expand opportunity for all, and they are not a model for other states to follow.

The three bills in question – HB 497, HB 116, and HB 466 – are now on their way to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, awaiting either his signature or his veto. As a legislative package, the measures do little to truly bring Utah’s immigrant residents into the folds of society or to encourage their economic contributions to the state. And despite State Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's claims to the contrary, the provisions of HB 497 – an echo of Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 – will still green light racial profiling against a whole spectrum of Utah residents, many of them legal immigrants and American citizens. These radical enforcement provisions will only serve to dramatically expand racial profiling and erode the progress state and local law enforcement are making toward developing trust with local residents.

As might be expected given such quick moving legislative developments, confusion reigns about the provisions included in Utah’s trio of immigration bills. While passed as a package, the central pillar of the three bills is HB 497 – the bill slated to go into effect first. Here are the main elements of each bill, accompanied by an explanation of why each will prove destructive to Utah’s communities and state economy:

  • HB 497: If signed into law, this bill would be the first of the three to take effect, as soon as 60 days after it is signed by the governor. The proposal is an echo of Arizona’s infamous (and broadly unconstitutional) SB 1070, which is still currently on hold after a federal court ruling blocking its implementation. While HB 497’s language is slightly different from that of SB 1070, its intention and impact is the same: it grants state and local law enforcement officers broad authority and discretion to enforce federal immigration laws whenever they stop, detain or arrest individuals. In fact, HB 497 removes the ‘reasonable suspicion’ language in SB 1070 that concerned the federal courts, thereby opening the door even further for police to racially profile residents. Finally, HB 497 would have high implementation costs because it effectively deputizes state and local law enforcement as immigration agents, resulting in increased costs to law enforcement that will further dig into Utah’s budget deficit.
  • HB 116: If signed into law, this bill would establish a state ‘guest worker’ program – separate from the federally-administered farm worker program – where Utah would set eligibility criteria to grant state temporary worker permits that would allow some immigrants to work and reside in the state. Under the program, a small proportion of the state’s undocumented residents who met certain eligibility criteria would be eligible for state residency and work authorization. But the specific language in the bill makes it clear that it is set up to fail. The bill would be contingent on the federal government granting a ‘waiver’ to the state to issue such permits, and would only take effect in 2013, or 6 months after the federal government issues such a waiver. This proposal is also very likely unconstitutional, because only the federal government has the authority to grant visas and work authorizations. Indeed, the state legislative counsel ‘note’ at the end of the bill acknowledges the bill is likely unconstitutional given that it usurps authority from the federal government to regulate immigration and immigrant work authorization. There is no precedent for the federal government to grant Utah the waiver that would be necessary for HB 116 to take effect, and it is highly unlikely that the federal government would take such an action.
  • HB 46: If signed into law, this bill would create a 27-member state commission to issue various recommendations on immigration policy for Utah, and would authorize Utah’s governor to enter into a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the Mexican state of Nuevo León to allow Mexican temporary workers to work in Utah. Its implementation would presumably operate under the confines of federal immigration law, though the process for this is still unclear.

Despite the disappointment in Utah, the vast majority of states have rejected Arizona-style approaches to immigration policy this session. And legislators in more and more states are considering common-sense alternatives to the measures listed above, including:

  • Instead of burdening already overwhelmed state and local enforcement officers with enforcing federal immigration laws, state legislators are advancing community policing legislation that explicitly bars police from enforcing federal immigration laws and allows them to focus on keeping residents safe by building trust with communities, witnesses, and victims of crimes – an approach is supported by immigrant advocates as well as law enforcement organizations.
  • Instead of instituting a state guest worker program – an approach taken in the past by the federal government which resulted in widespread worker exploitation – state legislators are advancing measures to enforce existing wage and hour laws, which apply to all workers regardless of their immigration status.
  • And instead of entering into a piecemeal guest worker program with Mexico, state legislators are focused on updating our nation’s outdated immigration system by advocating for and passing a broad immigration overhaul that provides a path to citizenship for those already living and paying taxes in the United States and allows our nation to welcome the workers and entrepreneurs it needs to continue to rebuild our economic future.

These are the types of constructive, common-sense, responsible immigration laws being pursued by State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy (SLPIP), a growing group of state lawmakers from 32 states and counting. For more information on SLPIP, see

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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