Bishop Wester responds to signing of four Utah immigration bills

Friday, Mar. 18, 2011
Bishop Wester responds to signing of four Utah immigration bills + Enlarge
By The Most Rev. John C. Wester
Bishop of Salt Lake City

I appreciate the sincere efforts of Governor Gary Herbert and some Legislators to adopt humane solutions in the face of the federal government’s failure to act on immigration reform. Each Legislator’s desire to do what he or she felt was right under the circumstances was clear throughout the debate. I particularly respect Governor Herbert’s decision to sign several immigration bills in the face of extreme opposition.

However, reasonable people of goodwill may differ on strategies for achieving common goals. The Diocese of Salt Lake City finds H.B. 497 Utah Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act, H.B. 116 Utah Immigration Accountability and Enforcement Amendments, and H.B. 469 Immigration Related Amendments ill-advised. We have concerns about the practical effects of H.B. 466 Migrant Workers and Related Commission Amendments. All four bills were signed into law by Governor Herbert.

H.B. 116 attempts to create an unenforceable and unconstitutional guest worker permit. Similarly, H.B. 469 would create a Resident Immigrant Permit for immigrants who are sponsored by local citizens to work or study in the state. Both permits would be issued by the state, which has no authority to do so. In fact, the Legislature’s own legal counsel advised them that the permits are highly likely to be found unconstitutional. This counsel should not be taken lightly.

While I commend the Utah Legislature for recognizing the value immigrant workers provide to our state and the need to provide legal status for the workers and their families, legal status may only be granted by the federal government. One may hope that Utah’s political strategy of passing a law first and seeking federal approval after will be successful. However, on a human level, this political strategy poses severe risks for vulnerable immigrants within our state. For example, while the permit provisions do not take effect until 2013, or upon the granting of a federal waiver (which is unlikely given that there is no provision for a waiver within federal immigration law), the enforcement-only law, H.B. 497, becomes effective on May 10. Thus, for the next two years undocumented immigrants will be pushed further into the shadows while awaiting a chance for legal status.

H.B. 497 fails to recognize the dignity and value of undocumented immigrants in Utah. The measure requires all Utahans to carry identification or face questioning regarding immigration status. Despite the Legislature’s efforts to remove the specter of racial profiling from the bill, a law enforcement officer is given leeway to decide whether to further investigate immigration status in certain circumstances. I fear many of those decisions could come down to the color of the person’s skin or their last name.

While the Diocese does not oppose the concept of H.B. 466, which creates a path for migrant workers in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to enter the United States legally for work, we are concerned about the effects of the bill. This bill works within existing federal law, but it does nothing to improve the lives of immigrants currently residing in Utah. Further, without federal-level immigration reform, state-level bills such as this run the risk of pitting one group of workers against another. Were the federal government to address immigration, it would be in the best position to ensure that its laws adequately protect immigrant workers currently residing in the United States, workers seeking to migrate to the United States, and workers with full citizenship.

In conjunction with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and the National Immigration Law Center, the Diocese of Salt Lake City has long held that piecemeal immigration reform at a state level does not and cannot adequately address the needs of those who seek to live with basic human dignity and respect within our borders. As was stated very clearly in the Utah Compact, signed by numerous local businesses, religious leaders, and thousands of community members, immigration is a federal issue.

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