Bill Wright

Field of Dreams

Tony Yapias has long been an outspoken advocate for Utah’s immigrants and their families. He believes, like Wright, that the punitive ambitions of immigration hardliners are futile. 

But he also believes in “dealing with reality.” 

“It’s just unrealistic to believe that a state like Utah would have a guest worker program,” he says. “If someone was to tell me that this is really going to happen, I’d think they’re smoking something.” 

Wright knows that the law he championed wouldn’t likely survive a court challenge. And he understands his colleagues in the State Legislature might get cold feet as the date of implementation draws near.

But he’s OK with all of that. The way he sees it, the most important part of the bill has already been carried out. “We sent a resounding message to this country,” he says. “One of the most conservative states in the nation said, ‘Look, maybe we can solve the problem we have in a different way.’” 

Shurtleff has also tried to spread that message. “Ultimately I want Republicans in Congress to understand that the states who have tried to address this issue only through enforcement have had nothing but challenges, economic disaster and hardship. But we did something different. And politically, the people who did that survived.”

Most of them, at least.

Back in his alfalfa field, Wright watches his son, Jake, cut the tangled crop into even rows. The elder farmer says he was always aware that his aversion to populist politics could cost him his legislative seat. And he was comfortable with that. “The worst they could do to me is send me home,” he says. “But the thing is, I like it here.”

The sun hangs high, unrelenting in a cloudless sky. All across this state, in fields like this and in restaurant kitchens and in university classrooms, in churches, office buildings and factories, thousands of people are still waiting, wondering and praying. 

Will a little simple farm sense prevail?

“Someday,” Wright says as he watches the alfalfa fall. “Maybe someday.”

The Utah Solution

Late in the morning on March 15, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed four immigration reform bills, which combined constitute what he called “The Utah Solution.” Flanked by business, religious and legislative leaders in the Gold Room of the Utah Capitol, the governor acknowledged immigration was primarily a federal issue. But given federal inaction on the issue, he said, the state had “taken a thoughtful, rational approach and found common ground” for reform. The bills included: 

HB 116: Utah Immigration Accountability and Enforcement Amendments

The bill modifies the law to establish a state-implemented guest worker visa program, to be managed by the Utah Department of Public Safety starting by July 1, 2013. To be eligible, applicants must have lived in Utah prior to May 10, 2011, have a contract for hire pending issuance of the visa, agree to a criminal background check, be covered by a basic health plan and pay a fine of $2,500 if they entered the country illegally or $1,000 if they came legally but overstayed a visa. Critics of the law have questioned whether employers would commit to hiring undocumented immigrants and whether workers will be able to afford both the fine and a basic health care plan before receiving lawful employment. 

HB 466: Migrant Workers and Related Commission Amendments 

The bill authorizes Utah to enter into a pilot program with the Mexican state of Nuevo León to facilitate applications for migrant workers to come to Utah through the normal federal process. Through the program, businesses could tap into a pool of legal workers, but only if they can demonstrate that they cannot otherwise obtain sufficient labor. Workers would have to meet federal eligibility requirements for a nonimmigrant visa and pass a background check, and those who overstay the visa would be immediately reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

HB 469: Immigration Related Amendments

The bill enacts the Utah Pilot Sponsored Resident Immigrant Program Act, a program that permits Utah citizens to sponsor immigrants from other countries, accepting financial liability for the immigrant. The bill is based on a legal theory suggesting that while the federal government has the right to protect national borders and grant citizenship, states are free to regulate immigration on their own. Supporters say it’s a more fair way of dealing with Utah’s immigration issues. It would force those who are in the state illegally to find a sponsor, return home and then apply for a permit. But critics say it’s unlikely to survive a federal challenge. 

HB 497: Utah Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act

Based on Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement provisions, but with a lighter touch, the law requires that a law enforcement -officer verify the immigration status of any person arrested for a felony or a Class A misdemeanor, and any person booked for a Class B or C misdemeanor. It also permits the arrest of anyone if a police officer has “reasonable cause to believe the person is an alien.” The law requires, however, that a law enforcement officer may not consider race, color or national origin. The law has been challenged by the federal government and civil rights organizations. 

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