Utah Approves Guest Worker Program for Illegal Immigrants

Republicans in red state seek stronger enforcement, compassion for immigrants.

ByABC News
March 6, 2011, 5:40 PM

March 7, 2011 -- 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.