SALT LAKE CITY -- Some Utah businesses would have to confirm the immigration status of employees -- but would no longer face criminal penalties if they didn't -- under a bill passed Friday in the state Senate.
An original version of the measure included the penalties, but they were removed by bill sponsor Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. Lawmakers voted 24-4 to pass Senate Bill 251, sending it to the House.
The measure would bar a private employer with 15 or more workers from hiring new employees after July 1 without verifying their immigration status.
Several states require businesses to use the federal E-Verify program, and about 184,000 of the nation's 7 million to 8 million employers use it. The Web-based system checks a worker's information against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases to determine U.S. employment eligibility.
Buttars argued that enacting the measure would both stop identity theft and strike a blow against illegal immigration.
"We will be able to stop this illegal work force that's in our country," Buttars said.
The program is free to employers, and some states -- including Utah -- already require public employers and contractors to use the system.
The online tool, however, has some reported flaws, and Westat -- a research company that evaluated the system for the Department of Homeland Security -- found it wrongly clears illegal workers about 54 percent of the time.
Opponents of the Utah bill said it would do more harm than good.
"We will not solve the problem of illegal immigration by putting more burden on small businesses," said Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City.