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Once Utah's immigration enforcement bill finally passed early last week, more than 40 lawmakers, all but two of them Republicans, congratulated themselves on a tough job done well.

But for those who worry about civil liberties, HB497 has fostered ever more concern about unintended consequences the bill could have on all Utahns, not just undocumented immigrants.

In a preliminary analysis, the national and Utah American Civil Liberties Union say the bill would give Utah police officers the authority to investigate a person's immigration status if they're suspected of felony or misdemeanor crimes.

That, says Karen McCreary, executive director of the Utah ACLU, puts the burden of immigration enforcement on officers who likely won't be well-trained in the complexities of such enforcement.

Local law enforcement can ask if you're a citizen or a legal immigrant if you're stopped for even a minor misdemeanor such as a traffic violation, possession of a certain amount of marijuana, or even littering.

If you're not carrying proof of your status, you can simply say, "I'm in the country legally."

But if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that your statement, or even the documents you can produce are not valid, you can be detained while authorities check your status, McCreary says.

"What if that 'reasonable suspicion' is the color of your skin?" asks Utah ACLU legal director Darcy Goddard.

The bill's backers said it was intended to go after the "worst of the worst" offenders among the undocumented, Goddard adds. "But the 'worst of the worst' does not include people picked up on class B or C misdemeanors."

If you are detained, law enforcement would be obliged to verify your immigration status, which would mean days, weeks, even months of custody while they search various databases that keep track of who's here legally and who isn't.

Worse, as police executives around the state have worried, it could undermine cooperation between cops and crime victims. If a person fears deportation more than criminals, a crucial investigative step is lost.

"Those who are the nasty folks know there are people who aren't going to go to the police," McCreary says. "It's so important to have the engagement of the community with our law enforcement, both to hold them accountable and for people to have trust."

The ACLU, as well as the National Immigration Law Center and other groups, worry that Utah has leaned too much on Arizona's much criticized and litigated SB1070, which also tried to put immigration enforcement in the hands of local authorities.

As for the systematic problems with federal immigration law, McCreary says, "I wish we could put all this energy, this focus, into putting on pressure and coming up with something on a national basis."

Of course, Congress hasn't done much at all on this front, likely because the minority populations are swelling in numbers and political clout.

No doubt, in a time of a staggering economy and rampant joblessness, we do have a serious illegal immigration problem. But as a nation of immigrants, we should have some understanding, even compassion, for those who come here for the simple reason that they, too, need to work to survive.

Unfortunately, those states who do adopt immigration enforcement laws are susceptible to lawsuits that will cost their residents a lot of money and, quite likely, will lose in court.

So if, as the sponsors of HB497 wish, their bill and other bills get the attention of Congress, more power to them. Which means, of course, that we should be electing U.S. senators and representatives whom we can trust to seize the power to reform immigration law and save the states from trying to do the work themselves.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at