Utah's New Immigration Law: A Model For America? By enacting bills that focus on both enforcing immigration laws and allowing for guest workers to legally live in Utah, the state's Republican leadership seeks a more business-friendly law than in neighboring Arizona.
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Utah's New Immigration Law: A Model For America?

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Utah's New Immigration Law: A Model For America?

Utah's New Immigration Law: A Model For America?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Egypt.


I'm Renee Montagne.

Arizona's tough immigration law has received extensive coverage and there's been a lot of talk about similar measures in other states. Yet one of Arizona's neighbors, also known for its conservative politics, has taken a very different approach. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: If you were to choose a state that would allow illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows, work and drive without fear of deportation, you probably wouldn't pick Utah.

Mr. ALFONSO AGUILAR (Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles): And we have to understand, Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country.

LIASSON: Alfonso Aguilar runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. He says the new Utah law shows Republicans can find a middle course.

Mr. AGUILAR: The governor's Republican, the House and Senate are dominated by Republicans. And they saw what happened in Arizona. They passed an enforcement only law. It has driven away investment, business, workers that the Arizona economy needs. So they wanted to deal with enforcement but balance it with measures that are more business friendly. And that's exactly what they did.

LIASSON: Last Wednesday, the governor of Utah signed a package of immigration bills. One is an enforcement law, milder than Arizona's but still opposed by liberal immigration advocates. Another is a guest worker law that's opposed by some conservatives as amnesty. But State Representative Bill Wright, who wrote the law, says he was just trying to deal with reality. There are 11 million illegal immigrants in America and they are not going to be deported.

State Representative BILL WRIGHT (Republican, Utah): I'm of the opinion we really don't have the ability as a society to remove that large a portion of the segment from our society. A lot of these people are intertwined in our society. They have financial obligations. They have bank notes. They've bought houses. They contribute. They have jobs. So it is - let's operate on this premise.

LIASSON: Wright's new Utah guest permit law says if you pay a fine, have no criminal record and are working, you can stay in Utah. This has thrilled immigration reform advocates like Frank Sharry.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Immigration Reform Advocate): The Utah legislation is a very rough draft of what we call Comprehensive Immigration Reform at the national level. It combines enforcement and a program to make those here legal. Frankly, what you have is in a ruby-red state some legislators and the governor and the Mormon Church and a conservative think tank leading the way towards a more enlightened approach on immigration.

LIASSON: Sharry's referring to the Utah compact, a group convened with the governor's blessing to come up with an alternative to the Arizona approach. Alfonso Aguilar hopes it will have an impact on the stalled immigration debate in Washington.

Mr. AGUILAR: We need a federal solution. Hopefully this will pressure the government, the federal government, to do something.

LIASSON: Now along comes Utah asking the federal government to do something very soon. As Bill Wright explains, Utah needs the Obama administration to give it a waiver so it can enact the guest worker law.

State Rep. WRIGHT: Up to this point, the federal government has proved that they're null and void of any ideas because of the political environment there. They have not been able to accomplish it. We're asking them, take a look at this. We want some action, we want something done.

LIASSON: The last attempt at national immigration reform died in the Senate in December. And although the debate in Washington seems hopelessly polarized, there are Republicans who fear they can't win a presidential election if their party continues to be seen as anti-Hispanic. And President Obama may fear he can't face Hispanic voters in 2012 without trying again to fulfill his promise to pass immigration reform.

So, says Frank Sharry, how the administration responds to Utah's request for a waiver will be an important test.

Mr. SHARRY: At the end of the day, a 50-state patchwork of policies isn't the solution. But in order to really change this debate and show that there's a more sensible way to approach it, the Obama administration would be very wise to engage with the conservatives from Utah who want to move forward on this.

LIASSON: The White House has been planning to make another push for immigration legislation sometime in the next couple of months. Utah's new guest worker law could force the president to speed up his timetable.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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