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Incoming Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart is among several lawmakers who said there is growing momentum for the Legislature to cobble together a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but Rep. Stephen Sandstrom said Friday he is steadfastly committed to pitching his enforcement-only measure on its own.
"I'd be unwilling to roll my bill into any kind of omnibus bill," Sandstrom said. "It has widespread support."
But the Orem Republican may be facing a shifting tide as Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate prepare to meet and figure out ways to avoid a logjam of immigration bills when the legislative session starts Jan. 24.
The number of immigration-related bills facing the Legislature is estimated to be between 16 and 25. Most of the bills haven't been made public yet.
Lockhart, who was elected speaker in November, said a move toward combining bills that tackle employment, enforcement and guest worker programs "would be beneficial to the process" and said she thought the Senate was moving in a positive direction toward that goal.
She pointed to a guest worker bill being authored by Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, as a possible platform for building upon. Wright's bill is a worker's permit program for noncitizens.
"I know the Senate has talked about maybe having that kind of process begin there, so I think that's a valid option to pursue," Lockhart said in an interview with The Tribune. "Whether or not we can reach agreement or reach consensus on the issue remains to be seen."
And Majority Leader Brad Dee said with 75 House members having an opportunity to debate, amend and discuss a hot-button bill like Sandstrom's, it could hamstring the Legislature in considering other issues during the 45-day session.
"I do think there is an appetite for making sure this is not the issue that dominates the session when we are in a situation with the budget and other things where we have so many other responsibilities right now," Dee said.
The option that appears to be gathering steam is having Sen. Curt Bramble carry forward an omnibus immigration bill.
He has been meeting with both House and Senate members about being the sponsor of that bill, and the Provo Republican will make a slide-show presentation to the Senate Republican Caucus on Monday.
That presentation is the same one Bramble made at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Arizona last month where he took on illegal immigration firebrand Russell Pearce, sponsor of Arizona's law, on a panel that discussed the merits and problems of enforcement-only approaches.
Bramble's position was that an enforcement-only approach wasn't the best way to go. He told Sandstrom late last year that he would offer an amendment to his bill that would prevent mere possession of a Utah driver privilege card from being sufficient "reasonable suspicion" that a person was in the country illegally.
The driver privilege card was created in legislation introduced by Bramble in 2005. It was passed and signed into law, allowing undocumented people to obtain insurance to legally drive in Utah. Lockhart was the House sponsor of that bill.
Sandstrom's bill would require local police to enforce federal law by detaining suspected undocumented immigrants caught committing a crime or traffic infraction. But unlike under Arizona law, police could only check the status of the person alleged to have committed the crime, not the people in the suspect's company, such as passengers in a vehicle.
Lockhart said Sandstrom made a presentation to the Republican House Caucus last month to show all of the changes he's made to the bill and demonstrate how it has moved away from the Arizona law. She said his willingness to amend his bill showed a good-faith effort in trying to work toward a solution.
But she also said she was mindful of Gov. Gary Herbert's request for comprehensive immigration reform and that what becomes law in Utah could have a lasting impact on the image of the state.
"I want Utah to be both a place where people want to live but also a place that enforces the law," Lockhart said. "And so the great challenge is how do we reconcile those two issues."
She also praised the Utah Compact, calling it "a document we could use to measure some of our solutions against."
The Utah Compact, which was endorsed by the LDS Church and community and business leaders, focused on the humanitarian aspects of illegal immigration. At the time it was unveiled in November, Sandstrom said he viewed it as a direct attack on his bill. It has been signed by almost 3,000 people.
House Republicans will gather in caucus on Jan. 19 to see if they can build support around a comprehensive approach. But no matter what the result is, Rep. Ryan Wilcox said there is one thing he is certain of: Sandstrom's bill will get a floor vote.
"There is no question in my mind there will be a debate on the floor," the Ogden Republican said. "I would be shocked if there wasn't."
Omnibus immigration bill may make sense because of sheer volume of proposals
Lawmakers say there are as many as two dozen bills most of them still secret being readied for consideration in the upcoming legislative session. The sheer number of proposals is one reason cited by Republican leaders as an argument for attempting to consolidate several different approaches into an omnibus bill. But Stephen Sandstrom said he is determined to push his enforcement-only measure as a stand-alone bill.