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Key lawmakers and activists from all corners of immigration reform held a closed-door meeting in Sen. Curtis Bramble's office Wednesday night in an attempt to cobble together a comprehensive approach to the issue.
Bramble, who has opened a bill file called "Immigration Reform," told the roughly 20 people, including Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, that it was a chance to pass some meaningful legislation that would avoid pitfalls encountered by Arizona when it passed a constitutionally challenged enforcement-only law.
"We had a very robust discussion, and there is cautious optimism that we will find the right mix of provisions," he said.
The Provo Republican said five lawmakers four Republicans and a Democrat who have drafted immigration bills seemed willing to consider "a composite" approach by lifting pieces of their legislation into one bill. The deadline to file a bill is Thursday.
Bramble said, for example, one possibility was an attempt to take Rep. Christopher Herrod's employer-enforcement bill that leans on the federal E-Verify program to root out undocumented workers and meld it with Sen. Luz Robles' bill that requires them to obtain accountability cards.
He also said they could fold in portions of Sandstrom's enforcement-only bill that requires local police to enforce federal immigration law by questioning the legal status of those in the commission of a crime or an infraction.
But Sandstrom, the Orem Republican who has steadfastly demanded an up-or-down vote on his bill, said he felt like he was being asked to move off of his position.
"They're trying to put my mind at ease a bit which they didn't really do," he said. "I tried to explain that we still need my bill. We still need a tough enforcement bill."
Sandstrom did say, however, that while there were tense moments in the meeting, the tone was civil. He said he felt he made some progress when he talked about undocumented workers stealing Social Security numbers and committing identity theft to gain employment in Utah. Out of the discussion the idea emerged of requiring those who stole someone's identity to pay restitution.
The meeting included Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, Sandstrom, Robles, Herrod, Rep. Bill Wright, Sen. Howard Stephenson, Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration spokesman Ron Mortensen and Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero, among others. Mero, who supports the Robles bill, said the meeting tilled "fresh ground."
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who has been a point person for Gov. Gary Herbert on immigration reform, said he has been impressed with Sandstrom's work on his bill including the removal of some of the more punitive portions.
But Bell said the office was also impressed with the bill unveiled by Robles with a Republican House co-sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Peterson of Ogden.
That bill, which would be a pilot program requiring a federal waiver to operate, creates an identification system for the 110,000 undocumented people living in Utah. These residents would be subject to vigorous background checks, be required to learn English and take a civics class and pay the fees for the identification cards so there would be no cost to the program.
"I think it's a great idea," Bell said. "If we could get a federal waiver approved as well as a lot of legislative buy-in, I think we'd have a lot of interest in that."
The Robles bill along with other, currently protected bills are all essentially pilot programs, said Bramble, adding he believes that's the road Utah is headed down.
"I think we have a chance to be a leader in this," he said.
Robles said because her bill requires a federal waiver, her office has already been in talks with the White House, and she said she believes there is an appetite for "creative solutions" to the problem.
Bramble agreed and suggested several of the proposals fit that bill.
"We can apprehend. We can detain. We can't deport," Bramble said. "But we have to deal with the issue and, if the 50 states are laboratories of democracy, then all three fit the definition of pilot programs or experiments."
This is a corrected version of a story first published Wednesday night. House Speaker Becky Lockhart did not attend the meeting as first reported.