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A bipartisan Utah immigration commission sent letters to legislative leadership this week asking them to "refrain" from passing any bills on the issue this session.

The letters, signed by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who is the chairman of the Utah Commission on Immigration and Migration, were delivered to House Speaker Becky Lockhart and Senate President Michael Waddoups.

"I am directed to inform you of the Commission's motion asking the Legislature to refrain from passing any legislation regarding immigration, migration and guest worker programs during the 2012 General Session of the Legislature," Bell's letter read.

Waddoups said he is in agreement with the recommendation and said the only immigration issues that should be considered this session are ones that are "critical" to the state. Senators were already headed in that direction, he added.

There are two key pieces of immigration legislation in the Senate — both by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. One would repeal the driver privilege card, which has been on the books for more than six years and is a way for undocumented immigrants to drive legally in Utah. The other would repeal HB116 — last session's controversial law that establishes a state-based visa program for undocumented workers.

That guest-worker law, however, doesn't take effect until July 2013.

It's one reason why Lockhart isn't too worried about immigration bills this session.

"We do have another legislative session to address them," she said.

The commission met Monday, but not all of its 27 members were present — Waddoups and Lockhart, for example, were among those absent. The recommendation to halt immigration legislation came at the request of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who had a surrogate at the meeting to offer the proposal.

Only Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero and Bell opposed the recommendation.

Wilcox said he believed the commission should have been dealing with specific bills — not arguing generally for no action.

Mero didn't want to neutralize his organization from taking positions on legislation that is introduced.

"I wanted to make sure Sutherland was in a position to participate in whatever legislation is addressed in either chamber," Mero said. "If I had said 'yes,' I think people could've pointed the finger at me saying you should sit this out because you don't want anything up here."

Bell could not be reached, but others said he wanted to avoid the appearance of taking a stand on pending legislation.

The commission was established by statute in the last legislative session under a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. Its recommendation to refrain from dealing with immigration legislation this session came just two days before the House narrowly rejected Sandstrom's request to allow him to open a bill to impose sanctions on employers hiring undocumented immigrants. Bell's letter formally communicating the recommendation, however, was dated one day after that House action.

The law establishing the commission left legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert in charge of appointing the 27-members and the Attorney General's Office responsible for staffing. The commission's charge was to "conduct a thorough review of the economic, legal, cultural and educational impact of illegal immigration on the state."

It also is charged with advising the governor and lawmakers on proposed immigration legislation "for the purpose of encouraging a comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable state response to issues related to immigration."

Herbert said he believed in the value of the commission poring through immigration policy before legislative bills start moving.

"I think that is a way. That may not be the absolute only way," Herbert said. "But to have it vetted through a commission, I can understand the wisdom of that."

Made up of lawmakers, agency directors and private citizens, it was labeled a "kangaroo commission" by Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration.

And not even all the commission members knew they were on it.

Janalee Tobias is a resident of South Jordan and an anti-illegal immigration activist. She was appointed to the commission — except she said no one told her.

"I would've done anything to be there," Tobias said. "I would've walked if I had to."

She also would've opposed the recommendation, calling it a "chicken way to do things," noting the commission isn't scheduled to meet again until April, well after the session is over.

"I'm going to find out how to be involved in these meetings," she said. "I'd like to have a chance to give my input."

Twitter: @davemontero

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