Is Utah immigration package a model for national reform?

immigration seal
(image: New Mexico Independent)

When Utah recently passed a package of immigration bills that offered a guest worker program along with stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws, some hailed the package as a breath of fresh air–a vote for moderation in what all too often has become a very contentious debate.

Writing in the Sacramento Bee, Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners advocating immigration reform, says the Utah package is all that an more.

She notes that while parts of the Utah package are unconstitutional on their face, they point the way to a new way of approaching the issue and, if adopted by other states, could provide the momentum needed to get the U.S. Congress to enact a similar package, which would be constitutional by virtue of being federal.

From her column:

Among immigration reform advocates, it’s an article of faith: Only the federal government, not the states, can fix the immigration system. These reformers aren’t wrong. Ultimately, only Washington can control the nation’s borders or set standards for citizenship, and a patchwork of 50 different laws dealing with illegal immigrants isn’t likely to work for anyone.

But it has now been 10 years – 10 years! – since President George W. Bush first promised to make immigration reform a priority in Washington. Bush has come and gone. Congress has tried and failed. A new president has come into office, and promised and failed. So maybe it’s time to try a different approach, if only to break the logjam.

The state of Utah showed the way this month, passing a package of three immigration bills that cover all three bases most reform advocates agree need to be covered by any fix: tougher enforcement, a guest-worker program to meet the state’s labor needs and an answer – fines and work permits – for the unauthorized immigrants already living and working in Utah.

The package isn’t perfect. It probably isn’t constitutional. The Constitution’s supremacy clause plus 200 years of lawmaking are thought to reserve immigration policymaking for the feds. Certainly, that’s how the courts have ruled for decades – an approach likely to be upheld, perhaps with some loopholes, when the Supreme Court considers the matter this spring.

But what if Utah were to become a national model? What if an array of other states passed balanced bills that combined enforcement with worker visas and an answer for unauthorized immigrants? What if California and New York and Illinois – states likely to pass liberal rather than conservative immigration measures – were to get in on the act?

Of course, in the long run, this would be unworkable. You’d have immigrants who were legal in one place but illegal as soon as they crossed a state line. National and even regional companies would flounder while they tried to navigate divergent laws. This is why the republic developed a strong central government – to impose some measure of consistency on the states and avoid a crazy-quilt pattern of rules.

But that’s the long run. In the short run, a crop of state bills would send a powerful signal to Washington. Utah already has – a shot resonating from coast to coast. One of the most conservative states in the nation, after all, voted to do what Democrats and Republicans in Congress have not done: register and regularize illegal immigrants. Enterprising lawmakers in other states might come up with fresh ideas Washington hasn’t thought of. And eventually, if enough states joined in, they would create a situation so intolerable that even Washington couldn’t ignore it. Hard as it is to imagine, Congress would have to act.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

Comments are closed.