Amid the fallout from Arizona's aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration, Gov. Gary Herbert has scrapped plans to call a special session to water down a bill requiring businesses to verify the legal residency of employees.
Legislators balked at making the change and some wanted to go in a different direction, adding tough new penalties for not checking a worker's legal status and even suggesting Utah should adopt Arizona's law requiring residents to prove they are in the country legally -- an unsettling prospect for business leaders.
"The governor realizes [immigration policy] is a conversation that needs to happen in Utah," said Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling. "It's something that he will participate in, but it's something that needs to be done in a thoughtful and deliberative way and a special session is not the venue to do that."
Typically, a special session lasts only a few hours.
Herbert had reservations about SB251 and its impact on business when it reached his desk, but rather than veto it, he struck an agreement with the sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. The deal was that Herbert would sign it into law, then call the Legislature in to a special session to delay its July 1 implementation for a year.
However, there was little support among legislators for revising SB251 and concerns from the business community -- which successfully lobbied to have any penalties stripped from the bill for not using E-Verify -- that lawmakers may actually make it less palatable for entrepreneurs.
"What I was looking at doing is taking the E-Verify bill [and] actually strengthening it like Arizona did and putting real teeth in it," said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
Sandstrom, who just returned from a visit to Arizona on Friday to meet with sponsors of immigration legislation there, said he planned to impose a fine on businesses the first time they didn't use the E-Verify system; the second time they would be banned from doing business in Utah.
Sandstrom still plans on sponsoring legislation next year for Utah to adopt Arizona's law requiring individuals to prove they're in the country legally.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, whose members had concerns about the bill, said that "with all the emotion that is taking place" involving the Arizona immigration law, it is best to avoid a fight.
"I think, because of this situation that took place in Arizona and the heated controversy that there has been, there may be some wisdom in not pushing something that is not as critical," Beattie said.
House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he thinks the bill the Legislature sent to the governor was fine in the first place.
"I've never felt very strongly that we needed [a special session] at all," said Clark. "The climate out there has probably enhanced those same feelings."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that members of his GOP caucus weren't interested in a special session to revise the E-Verify bill, but they did have other ideas for a session.
"I had a couple people say, 'Let's have the governor call us back and pass the Arizona law. Let's have him call us back to tell Washington that we want to implement states' rights in health care or deal with transportation issues on a state level,' " Waddoups said.
As it stands now, SB251 requires businesses with 15 or more employees to run their workers' names through the E-Verify database. It is against the law for them to ignore the requirement. Without penalties, however, it is a toothless mandate.
But David Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said that, even without penalties the group has some concerns about the law.
"They would technically be breaking the law and I'm not sure any employer is really jazzed up about being in violation of the law," Davis said. In addition, more than half of workers who are not legal are still cleared through E-Verify and it is hard to make the case to employers they should "jump through these administrative hoops" when the system fails to do what it is designed to do.
Nonetheless, Davis said, "I tend to agree that the current environment right now is not real conducive to address this issue."
There is also another factor complicating any potential special session: election-year politics.
Few are eager to grapple with immigration in an election year, especially those who are engaged in primary fights. Legislative leaders actually had already pushed back the June interim day -- when a special session could be held -- from June 16 to June 23, a day after primary elections.
During the May 8 Republican State Convention, delegates approved an amendment to the dominant party's platform calling for an end to automatic citizenship for children of undocumented residents born in the United States and for vigorous enforcement of immigration laws.
The Utah GOP passed the following amendment at its May 8 convention:
"America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of legal immigrants, and the Republican Party honors them. We believe that control of our borders is an urgent national security interest and our national sovereignty depends on those secure borders.
We oppose illegal immigration and all forms of amnesty, or legal status, for illegal immigrants. We support suspending automatic U.S. citizenship to children born to illegal immigrant parents. We oppose granting government benefits to those illegally present in the U.S. We oppose any temporary or "guest" worker program that would offer an automatic path to citizenship. We believe that current laws against employing illegal immigrants should be vigorously enforced, particularly to stem the now too common crime of identity theft in obtaining employment."
"A private employer who employs 15 or more employees as of July 1, 2010, may not hire a new employee on or after July 1, 2010, unless the private employer:
(a) is registered with a status verification system to verify the federal legal working status of any new employee; and (b) uses the status verification system to verify the federal legal working status of the new employee in accordance with the requirements of the status verification system.
A private employer shall comply with this chapter, and this chapter shall be enforced without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, familial status,or source of income."