Utah guest-worker law a model for California plan
Immigration • Proposed measure would require guest workers to pass background checks, learn English.
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Utah's groundbreaking guest-worker law has become the model for a proposed ballot measure in California that would allow undocumented workers in the Golden State to live and work through a state-run pilot program.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, said they had been meeting with Utah lawmakers during the past year to craft the language for the seven-page measure that they hope to have on the California ballot in November.

"We got a lot of tips from Utah and the passage of its guest-worker law was, frankly, the inspiration for it," Gonzalez said. "It showed that there are things you can do at the state level."

The measure, called the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act, will require 504,706 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot and its language was filed with the California Secretary of State on Dec. 2.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, said she had several conversations with Gonzalez in November 2010 — not long after The Utah Compact was signed and served as a guiding document for her legislation, SB60.

That bill later morphed into HB116 — a controversial bill signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert that would allow undocumented immigrants in Utah to live and work provided they pass background checks and pay fines.

It also would establish a pool of collected federal tax money by the registered permit holders that would stay within the state until the federal government worked out a plan with Utah to disperse those federal taxes to Internal Revenue Service.

However, critics argue HB116 is unconstitutional and the U.S. Justice Department — which is suing Utah for its enforcement-only immigration law — cited in a legal brief that HB116 could be the potential target of a lawsuit as well.

HB116 takes effect in 2013.

Under the California proposal, the requirements for qualifying for the so-called pilot program include being able to pass background checks, knowing or learning English, paying a fine and proving the immigrant lived in California since before January 2008.

Gonzalez said the ballot measure also was inspired by President Ronald Reagan and his signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Robles said having California follow Utah's lead on a guest-worker law would be a dramatic step for the rest of the country.

"California is such a huge state that trying to implement a program like that makes it more monumental," she said. "It will make others stand up and take notice."

But Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said it is just another backdoor approach by businesses looking to exploit cheap labor.

He said laws like HB116 and the California proposal tie legal status to employment and that a person can lose regular status simply by being fired. He called it "an employers' dream act" — a poke at California recently passing a state version of a federal proposal of the same name that would allow college students to obtain legal status by attending school or serving in the military provided they were brought to the United States as children.

"They don't call it the left coast for nothing," Mortensen said. "They have passed other illegal immigration-friendly bills, so there's a possibility it could pass."

According the Pew Hispanic Center, California has an estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the state compared with the 700,000 combined living in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

Robles said one of the stumbling blocks for California's ballot measure might be the cost.

Under her SB60 proposal, there were initial costs to the state of about $9.5 million in 2012 — with it eventually generating $19.4 million in revenue in 2013 as fees and taxes continued to be collected during the program.

California's economy has been rocked by high unemployment and, in November, the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office forecasted "a $12.8 billion budget problem" for the state in the upcoming fiscal year.

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero