Utah could become the first state in the nation with its own guest worker program that would grant permits to undocumented immigrants and allow them to continue living and working in the state legally.
The measure passed the Republican-controlled state legislature late Friday as part of a bipartisan deal that also includes an enforcement law, requiring police to check the immigration status of suspects in felony or serious misdemeanor cases.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert praised lawmakers for crafting a so-called "Utah solution" to the state's illegal immigration problem but has not said whether he will sign the bills.
The federal government would need to grant a waiver to allow Utah to permit immigrant workers who would otherwise not be legally present in the United States. Such a waiver would be unprecedented, and it's unclear whether a mechanism exists for the state to request one.
Still, passage of the legislation -- in a red state, in a part of the country most affected by illegal immigration -- is significant.
Most congressional Republicans and some Democrats currently oppose plans that would address the legal status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living across the United States.
Supporters of the Utah bills say they strike the right balance for the economy, recognizing the importance of immigrant workers for businesses and the need to crack down on illegal immigrants involved in crime.
"This is a common sense, market-based approach that balances immigration enforcement with measures that are supportive of the needs of Utah businesses and are also welcoming of immigrants," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
Aguilar said the bills would allow Utah's illegal immigrants to live "without the fear of being detained and removed from the country," assuming the federal government goes along with the plan.
Other immigrant advocates suggested that since the guest worker program does not provide a path to citizenship or a green card, which have been controversial components of federal immigration reform plans, other states could be more likely to adopt similar measures.
Under the bill, workers who apply for a permit must already be living in the state, pay a fee, pass a background check and possess health insurance.
The enforcement measure, which passed in tandem with the worker program, is reminiscent of Arizona's SB 1070 but lacks many of the controversial elements that are being challenged in federal court.
Police officers are not required to check the status of an individual based on a "reasonable suspicion" he or she is in the country illegally, and immigrants are not required to carry their immigration documents papers with them at all times. Both were parts of the Arizona law that have been challenged in court.
Opponents of Utah's bipartisan package, however, say the enforcement law doesn't go far enough and the guest worker program amounts to an amnesty.
"People think we'll be seen as compassionate," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. "People will actually see us as weak. They will see we don't care about the rule of law."
Herrod said that the guest worker program is unfair to hundreds of thousands of immigrants waiting in line for visas outside the country, and that the federal government already has its own guest worker programs for agricultural and lower-skilled workers.
Critics, including many businesses, have said those programs are cumbersome, expensive and are not meeting the demand for labor.
If Herbert signs the measures into law, they could still be challenged by the Justice Department in court, since the federal government retains the power to set and enforce national immigration policy.