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A leading lawyer on immigration suggested to lawmakers Wednesday that Utah follow in the steps of Wisconsin's experimental bid to revamp welfare benefits — a move that eventually led to the federal government modeling its reforms after former Gov. Tommy Thompson's efforts.

Tamar Jacoby, who currently heads up the non-profit ImmigrationWorks USA and considers herself conservative, said the state should seek to avoid the problems faced by Arizona — notably a rash of boycotts that could have negative economic impacts.

"Where you're going to have to make the harder choices is where you want to push the envelope," Jacoby said. "Arizona is not serving as a very efficient model for what it wants to do."

The presentation to about 20 Republican lawmakers in the Senate Caucus Room was the latest effort by the legislative body gathering information as it embarks down the road paved by Arizona's immigration reform law that has mired the state in controversy. Later this month, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and about a dozen lawmakers will head down to Arizona to meet with officials as well as do ride-alongs with U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Jacoby suggested the state consider what former Governor Thompson, a Republican, began in 1987— several years before President Bill Clinton signed sweeping federal welfare reform into law.

That program, called "Wisconsin Works," focused on getting welfare recipients adequate transportation, health care, child care and training in an effort to move them off welfare benefits and into the work force.

"The nation was at an impasse, the federal government wasn't doing anything and it was controversial," Jacoby said. "[Wisconsin] asked for a waiver and did their experiment."

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who led the meeting, feared "a kinder, gentler" approach might lead to more crime and would prove to be unfair to others.

"If we try a kinder, gentler approach, we fail to take into account the victims of identity theft, the abuse of social systems and, finally, the abuse put upon the person in a refugee camp for five years or the person who has been trying to come here legally for the past 20 years."

Stephenson has been an advocate for a state guest worker program for immigrants.

Several lawmakers showed interest in Jacoby's suggestion of a "double-barrel" approach to reform — making one bill for crime and another allowing people to work, then merging the bills together at the end.

Several legislators challenged Jacoby on an idea to require people to carry an employment card that would allow employes to swipe it — much like a credit card — and immediately check the veracity of someone's legal status.

Sen. John Greiner, R-Ogden, said employers should not be forced to be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

"I think the most effective place is at the border," Greiner, Ogden's police chief, said.

Jacoby, who is a former Newsweek writer and deputy editor of the New York Times opinion page, said Arizona's law didn't focus enough on the worker component and tended to get overshadowed by the criminal aspect.

The Legislature will take on immigration reform during the next session when Sen. Stephen Sandstrom introduces his bill, entitled the "Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act," modeled after Arizona's law.

Immigration reform to be debated

P Utah lawmakers are preparing for a major immigration debate beginning in January. The Arizona law is the model for what some, including Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, want to do here. But others have advocated a guest-worker program that recognizes the reality of the large immigrant component in the work force.

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