Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has been a vocal participant in the debate over immigration reform.

A Thoughtful Appoach

It wasn’t just Utah’s conservative base that found Wright’s bill objectionable. So did the American Civil Liberties Union, which said a guest worker program would lull undocumented immigrants “into a false sense of security by promised benefits that would extend only to Utah residents, while still being at constant risk of deportation.” 

Across the political divide, opponents argued that the bill was unconstitutional. Only the federal government, they said, had the right to decide who could come across the border. Wright countered by offering to suspend the guest worker program for two years to give the state a chance to work with the federal government for a waiver of federal laws.

Legislator by legislator, Wright made his case. And one by one, 41 members of the House of Representatives and 19 members of the Senate lined up to vote by his side. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law on March 15, 2011, calling it “a thoughtful, rational approach” to reform. “Utah did the right thing,” he said. “I challenge our federal delegation and those who work alongside them in Washington: It is time to get off the sidelines and have a meaningful dialogue about immigration in this country.”

Herbert’s challenge to his state’s congressional delegation has gone unanswered. Only Rep. Jason Chaffetz has sponsored any immigration legislation. His bill, passed by the House and awaiting Senate attention, would remove a cap on the number of visas for highly skilled workers from any one country. He acknowledged that his bill “does not attempt to address all of our immigration problems but is an important step that I hope will build momentum toward more significant policy changes.”

That hasn’t happened. None of the Utah delegates have proposed legislation that would offer a federal solution to the issue of undocumented workers and their families. They likely won’t until after the presidential election, says Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Until then, he says, “immigration is absolutely at a standstill.” 

But even as Congress cowers, a conversation sparked by Utah’s guest worker law is underway.

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has been charged with negotiating with the Obama administration for the Utah program’s survival, first placed the odds at 20 percent. “Today, I’d say it’s closer to 50-50,” he says. 

Since the bill’s passage, Shurtleff has made several trips to Washington to meet with officials from the Justice Department, Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And his pitch includes a nod to his home state’s most infamous social peculiarity. “We have a felony bigamy statute on the books,” he says, “but we can’t prosecute every bigamist in the state. So we decided we would focus on the most egregious cases.” 

Shurtleff is asking the federal government to exercise similar discretion in dealing with the undocumented immigrants and employers who participate in the state’s guest worker program. What Utah is offering, he says, is a list of employers who pay a living wage and payroll taxes to federally undocumented employees who have passed criminal background checks. “At first they were shocked,” Shurtleff says of his Washington contacts. “They said we absolutely couldn’t do that.” But eight months after first outlining Utah’s plan to the feds, the Obama administration announced a new policy that would defer action on “low priority” deportation cases, essentially those in which there was no criminal involvement. Although the odds are even at best, the government has yet to issue a constitutional challenge to the Utah law. That’s given Shurtleff and supporters of the plan hope that the federal government will consider permitting the Utah guest worker program to continue.

Next>>Part 6: Field of Dreams and The Utah Solution

Back>>Part 4: The Faith Factor