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Utah to Washington: Get Moving on Immigration Reform!

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Though Flawed, Utah Law Sends Strong Message to Congress and White House

Washington – When Arizona’s SB 1070 became law last year, the punditry immediately predicted that “Arizona fever” would sweep the nation, and dozens of states would pass similar legislation.  But what no one predicted was that a ruby red conservative state like Utah would also pass a measure that seeks to give work permits to undocumented immigrants settled in the state rather than simply trying to expel them.

Utah recently passed a series of measures that Republican Governor Herbert just signed into law yesterday.  The measures call for ramped up enforcement, work permits for undocumented immigrants already settled in the state, and visas for those coming to the state to join family members and work.  Let us be clear.  Upon close inspection, the specific language of the legislation should not serve as a model for other states.  For example, we are deeply concerned that the enforcement provisions skew dangerously close to the Arizona model – an approach that is likely to undermine the relationships between police and immigrant communities in a way that makes crime fighting harder and racial profiling easier.

But one aspect of the Utah legislation is groundbreaking.  The bill attempts to offer work permits to the estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants in the state as a way to help integrate them into the fabric of society rather than shunning them.  It is the Utah legislature’s attempt to deal realistically and honestly with the undocumented population, instead of pretending we can deport our way to a solution.  While the legislation will likely be challenged in court, the intent behind it deserves praise and the message it sends Washington is resounding.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The fact that the Utah legislature advanced an approach that tries to integrate undocumented immigrants rather than expel them is groundbreaking.  In addition, Utah has done what Washington has failed to do: pass a version of comprehensive immigration reform.  They did not get all of the details right, but they did get the concept right.  The idea behind comprehensive reform is to restore order and humanity to our nation’s broken immigration system by combining smart enforcement, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and a reformed and flexible legal immigration system that provides for the legal admission of family members and needed workers going forward.  Utah is sending a strong message to Congress – starting with the state’s own Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a past champion of immigration reform – that the time has come to stop the political posturing and get to work on a comprehensive solution.”

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that anything that opponents label “amnesty” is unpopular, voters also agree that getting undocumented immigrants into the system is a necessary part of an overall solution.  In line with numerous other surveys, new polls in Idaho and Utah show strong public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to work legally in the United States.  In the Utah poll, 71% support “the idea of state-issued work permits for undocumented immigrants that allow them to remain in the country if they have a job and undergo a criminal background check” while just 24% oppose the plan.  In Idaho, 73% of voters say that “a program should be created to allow illegal immigrants to stay in this country permanently,” while 23% disagree.

In stark contrast to states considering Arizona copycats, others are advancing pro-immigrant bills.  Efforts to allow DREAM-eligible youth in Maryland, Connecticut, California, Colorado, and other states to pay in-state tuition rates if they meet residency requirements are moving forward.  Efforts to strengthen the relationship between police and immigrants have been filed in Pennsylvania (introduced by State Sen. Leach) and New Mexico (introduced by State Sen. Griego).  Perhaps not all of these positive immigration bills will become law, but they show that there is a more nuanced and robust debate happening in a number of states.

As the Los Angeles Times editorialized recently, “The flurry of proposals should serve as a wake-up call to Washington. Congress has failed in the last few years to provide a comprehensive solution to the nation’s broken immigration system and instead has wasted time sparring over building bigger fences and funding stricter enforcement programs. The White House hasn’t done much better. President Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to overhaul immigration but has offered little else.  Washington can’t continue to abdicate its authority to the states. Lawmakers and the White House must begin the conversation and provide some legislative action.”

Added Sharry, “These states are sending Congress and the White House an important message.  States may have limited authority to solve the problem but they know that something must be done, and that something needs to go beyond the tired, costly and harsh enforcement-only strategies of the past two decades.  They are right.  We need real leadership from Washington, and we needed it yesterday.”

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.