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Lawsuit seeks to halt Utah immigration measure

HB 497 is a watered-down version of Arizona's controversial statute. The ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center say it violates civil rights as well as federal law.

May 04, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times

Utah won national attention 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."

Utah's HB 497 is a watered-down version of Arizona's law, most of which was put on hold last year by a judge who ruled that it was unconstitutional, a decision 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 also think 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. HB 497 was passed by the 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 that wide majorities in Utah and nationwide favor an Arizona-like approach to deport all illegal immigrants but also favor allowing those who are law-abiding 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 Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute. He noted that there are loud partisans who back the extremes — mass deportation or mass amnesty. "The middle has not made up its mind."

Utah's leaders have touted their approach as balancing enforcement and compassion. In a statement Tuesday, Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Gary R. 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 Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said the state's leaders scrambled last year to stop hard-liners from passing an Arizona-style law and repealing two other pro-immigrant measures. "It was going south real fast," he said in an interview Tuesday.

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, has signed on, and what seemed like a long-shot proposal got new life. Meanwhile, state legislative leaders repeatedly weakened the bill that became HB 497.

"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, and critics say it clearly flies in the face of federal law, which does not allow any state to create its own immigration policy. That bar is what doomed much of Arizona's law last year and is cited by the plaintiffs who sued Utah on Tuesday over its enforcement law.

The plaintiffs said they did not sue over the guest-worker law because it would not take effect until 2013.

A similar explanation was given by U.S. Atty. Gen. 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," Holder said, "we will take all the necessary steps."

Archie Archuleta, a Latino activist who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, said that there was fear in the state's immigrant communities over HB 497 but that the guest-worker proposal remains murky and wouldn't take effect for years.

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

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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