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Rep. Bill Wright's guest-worker immigration bill passed out of committee 6-1 Tuesday despite questions about its constitutionality and its ability to be enacted without a federal waiver.

The legislation would allow employers to enter into a guest-worker contract for two years and would be put into place whether the federal government proceeds with granting a waiver or not.

Wright, a Republican dairy farmer from Holden, said he anticipated his bill would undergo more revisions but added that the state needed to address immigration now.

"We play this game for a long time and say someone else will do it. These jobs will never go away. The production of food — our basic industries — have been around since the beginning of time," he said. "I don't care what society you live in, there is not a society that is able to eliminate these basic jobs."

Wright is running HB116 because he believes the immigration debate has turned into "a witch hunt" and said legislation must be passed that "moves us forward" with the undocumented immigrant population already living in Utah.

The bill would establish a program through the Utah Department of Workforce Services that would cost $1.9 million to start and could generate more than $11 million in revenue for the state through additional payroll taxes coming from workers enrolled in the program. His bill would also allow the issuing of permits for families and would have a $750 penalty for those who didn't have health insurance.

Wright said his bill is a key component to honoring the Utah Compact's principle of keeping families together. The Utah Compact has been signed by nearly 3,500 people and endorsed by a wide array of politicians, religious leaders and business advocates as a more compassionate approach to immigration reform.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 110,000 undocumented immigrants living in Utah, and Wright said he hopes to have anywhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of that population participating.

"Anything we do with this bill will be better than what we have now," he said.

But committee members — while voting for it — were squeamish about the prospect of a legal tussle with the federal government. Several opponents cited the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution that doesn't allow a state to supersede federal sovereignty — including the ability to grant workers de facto citizenship to be gainfully employed.

Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said he was "conflicted" about voting for the measure and said he was only passing it out of committee because he thought the issue needed to be debated on the House floor.

Rep. David Litvack, D- Salt Lake City, also expressed reservations but complimented Wright on addressing the humane angle of illegal immigration — saying it was the "first time in my 10 years I've seen a proposal" that addressed it.

However, Wright was attacked by opponents who took issue with his belief that no Americans would do the jobs that immigrants are filling — especially when the lawmaker railed on the attitudes of citizens toward immigrants.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said there are plenty of hardworking Americans who would fill those jobs.

And Victor Shanti, who opposed the Wright bill, said one of the last industries that called on a need for legal, cheap labor for economic needs was the institution of slavery.

But Wright didn't back down.

"I don't think the value of those who are doing what we call meaningless jobs is appreciated by our country," he said. "I think we're vain. I think we're spoiled. I think we're all fat. How many of you come in here at 4 a.m. and see who is emptying your garbage or sweeping your floor? I guarantee they don't have the same face color as I do."


The Guest Worker Program Act would:

Establish a program through the Utah Department of Workforce Services that would grant permits to undocumented workers.

Provide for state permits for the families of undocumented workers.

The proposal cleared the House Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Standing Committee. It now heads to the full House.