Groups file federal lawsuit over Utah's new immigration law

May 3 2011 - 11:30pm

DENVER -- Utah won national attention earlier this year for promoting a gentler approach to immigration when it passed a law essentially allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the state if they work and don't commit crimes.

Yet on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center filed a federal lawsuit to stop the implementation next week of another Utah immigration law, one modeled on a controversial Arizona law that enlists local police to help root out illegal immigrants.

"The statute violates everyone's civil rights," said Cecilia Wang, of the ACLU. "The practical effect is that people will have to carry their ID with them at all times."

The Utah law, House Bill 497, is a watered-down version of Arizona's law, most of which was put on hold last year by a judge whose ruling that it was unconstitutional was upheld last month by a federal appellate court.

The Arizona law made it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to investigate the immigration status of people they stop and believe are illegal immigrants -- meaning even people who jaywalk or are pulled over for not using turn signals could face scrutiny.

The Utah version does not create a new crime and only requires an investigation into a person's status after arrests for a felony or misdemeanor.

HB497 was passed by the highly conservative state Legislature at the same time as the state's guest worker program, which would give a legal identity card to illegal immigrants who pass a background check, pay a fine and are employed.

Each of the contradictory approaches is popular.

Polls have shown wide majorities in Utah and nationwide favor an Arizona- like approach to deport all illegal immigrants and also allow law- abiding ones to stay in the country.

The contradiction explains much of the paralysis surrounding the question of what to do about illegal immigration.

"Since George Washington's time, we have welcomed and shunned immigrants at the same time," said Muzzaffar Chichti, of the Migration Policy Center.

He said loud partisans back the extremes -- mass deportation or mass amnesty. "The middle has not made up its mind."

Utah's leaders say their approach balances enforcement and compassion.

In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert said: "The efforts of the ACLU/NILC would be much better spent in proposing and advocating realistic immigration reform rather than pursuing litigation against those who are trying to deal with our current problems."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the state's leaders scrambled last year to stop hardliners from passing an Arizona-style law and repealing two other pro-immigrant measures.

Business leaders came up with the idea of the Utah Compact, a statement of principles that urged law enforcement to focus on stopping crime rather than enforcing federal immigration law.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is growing rapidly overseas, signed on, and what has seemed like a long-shot proposal got new life. Meanwhile, Utah legislative leaders repeatedly weakened the bill that became HB497.

"But legislators still felt like they were taking a big risk on (the guest worker bill), and they had to tell their constituents they voted for an enforcement bill," Shurtleff said.

The guest worker law would require a federal waiver. Critics say it flies in the face of federal law, which does not allow states to create immigration policy.

That bar on state immigration policies is what doomed Arizona's law last year and is cited by the plaintiffs who sued Utah on Tuesday over its enforcement law. They said they did not sue over the guest worker law because it would not take effect until 2013.

That was a similar explanation as that given by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday when pressed as to why his department -- which sued Arizona over its law last year -- wasn't suing over Utah's guest worker bill.

"If it is not changed to our satisfaction by 2013," he said, "we will take all the necessary steps."

Archie Archuleta, a Latino activist who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, said there is fear in the state's immigrant communities over HB497, but that the guest worker proposal remains murky and won't take effect for years.

"The other bill," he said, referring to the guest worker measure, "has provided more confusion than comfort."

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