The enforcement-only immigration bill cleared its first major hurdle Friday when it was passed out of a House committee giving its chief sponsor a victory and moving it out for debate on the House floor.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, made the case for his bill inside a packed hearing room lined with extra security and harsh admonishments by Committee Chairman Curtis Oda, who threatened to arrest anyone who was disorderly or engaged in outbursts.
There were none.
The bill passed out of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee 9-3 along party lines.
Sandstrom has spent 10 months working on his bill, removing sections and meeting with lawmakers, LDS Church officials, local government heads and the public attempting to craft and adjust his legislation.
But he said he remained focused on what the overall goal was.
"We need a deterrent in Utah," Sandstrom said. "We have no deterrent now."
The bill, HB70, was such a hot-button issue that state officials moved the hearing to a larger room to accommodate about 100 people who crammed in to hear testimony and doors were closed, only allowing those waiting outside to come in when a seat was vacated. Extra security was also stationed around the room for the hearing that lasted for more than 3½ hours. More people were placed in an overflow room to hear the testimony.
Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill was the wrong approach to a problem that requires a federal solution.
"Making a bad bill better doesn't make it the right thing to do," he said.
Sandstrom said he likely picked up votes by making last-minute changes to his bill this week when he lowered the threshold for local police by not requiring them to investigate the legal status of those they catch committing Class B or C misdemeanors.
That change, he said, also reduced the fiscal note on the bill "significantly." The new fiscal note should be attached to the bill next week. Under the previous language, legislative analysts said the cost to local governments would be between $5.3 million and $11.3 million.
He also said he was "confident" it would pass out of the House now that it has 33 co-sponsors. He said, however, he sees "a few more difficulties in the Senate."
During his presentation, Sandstrom cited figures from Arizona a state that signed into law an enforcement-only immigration bill last year and said he had just gotten off the phone with "people in Arizona" who told him Friday that new data showed homicides in Phoenix had dropped by 50 percent since Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB1070.
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, tried to pin Sandstrom down on where the data came from and whether the number was directly tied to the crackdown on illegal immigration. She also pointed to data showing crime in Salt Lake City was down.
She finished the exchange with sarcasm.
"I believe you. That you were on the phone. With some people."
Sandstrom later said the data came from Brewer's office and a direct conversation he had with Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the Republican lawmaker who drove SB1070.
There were several other testy exchanges, including one where Oda tried to shorten Litvack's line of questioning of Sandstorm after the first 90 minutes of the hearing had been taken up by Sandstrom and his supporters' testimony. Oda tried to impose a three-minute time restriction on questions a motion that failed. When Oda suggested the time limit, Litvack said, "That's nice. Mr. Chair. That's nice" and then continued questioning Sandstrom.
The hot-button issue didn't ignite the crowd, however, which adhered to Oda's decree of decorum. And Oda, R-Clearfield, kept adding people to the testimony list well beyond the 4 p.m. deadline he initially had set.
Rep. David Butterfield, R-Logan, questioned Sandstrom at one point about not being able to produce identification as a form of "reasonable suspicion" under the bill's language that would allow law enforcement the discretion to check legal status. Butterfield said if he were jogging in the park and there was a suspect on the loose that matched his description and police stopped him and asked him for ID that he didn't have on him, he could be checked further under the reasonable suspicion clause.
But he voted for the measure after asking Sandstrom to address the issue before it goes to the floor for a vote.
"I've struggled with this bill for a long time" Butterfield said. "I really can't understand what is embarrassing or unreasonable about trying to verify the legal status of those who are committing the worst crimes."
Sandstrom also got testimony from Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, who said the lawmaker gets charged with not having compassion and yet, wondered where the compassion was for those who have identities stolen by undocumented workers who use fraudulent Social Security numbers to get jobs and loans.
Or for citizens who lose jobs to undocumented workers.
"They will not talk about the American construction worker who is unemployed," he said. "Those are jobs Americans will do."
Opposition for the bill ranged from those who saw the measure as a racist to an economic drag on the state.
Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, said "the bill remains a huge civil rights nightmare" and questioned its real intent.
"Despite the attempt to clarify "reasonable suspicion," in practice that term still only applies to brown-skinned people without a driver license," Mero said.
And Todd Landfried, spokesman for the Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, said since his state passed its enforcement-only law, it has lost conventions, tourism dollars and jobs. He estimated the economic impact upwards of $1 billion over five years.
"Arizona businesses have been there and done that and implore you not to follow Arizona's lead," Landfried said. "The SB1070 bandwagon is not one you want to be on."