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Washington • While Utah officials have pushed for federal changes that would allow the state's new guest-worker program to go into effect, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear that he expects the state to be the one that budges first.
Holder appeared Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee and was pressed by Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who accused the Justice Department of political favoritism for going after Arizona's immigration law aggressively but not Utah's.
Holder said Utah's guest-worker law, HB116, would not kick in without a change in federal law until 2013.
"If it is not changed to our satisfaction by 2013, we will take all the necessary steps," he said, alluding to a lawsuit.
Through his Twitter account, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff responded to Holder's comment, calling it "typical" and saying it is "more federal inaction/threats" on immigration. Immigration is a federal issue but more states have passed laws in recent years, saying Congress has not sufficiently dealt with the nation's illegal-immigration issue.
Shurtleff has met with Justice officials twice trying to head off a federal legal challenge to the guest-worker law that would allow undocumented workers to get a work permit if they passed a background check and paid a fine. Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to meet again with Holder or his subordinates sometime this month.
But Smith implied that these meetings show that the Obama administration favors the guest-worker law over Arizona's tough enforcement law, now tied up in appellate courts. He called it "selective enforcement."
Holder responded: "It has also been Department of Justice policy to try to work with states to see if there's a way in which we can reach an agreement without us having to actually file suit. So we will look at the law."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is a member of the Judiciary Committee and a critic of Utah's guest-worker law. He did not question Holder about the issue, rather he asked about an investigation into a federal program that may have allowed guns to go across the southern border to Mexican drug cartels.
Utah's guest-worker law is one of a package of immigration bills the state Legislature passed this year, including HB497, an enforcement law less strict that Arizona's. The Republican parties in Salt Lake and Utah counties have passed resolutions demanding the repeal of the guest-worker law.
The enforcement-only law, meanwhile, is the subject of a lawsuit by civil rights groups.