In March 2011 the state of Utah became the first to pass legislation that has the potential to significantly change the debate trajectory on immigration. House Bill 116 (HB 116) modifies the Utah Workforce Services Code by creating a program for “Guest Workers” which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits for the state of Utah. Recently, the Act has come under fire from various members of the state’s Republican Tea Party members as well as receiving national attention as it would require Federal approval for the issuance of permits. This paper will explore the basic background and history of the Guest Workers Program Act (GWPA). Second the paper will address the pros and cons of the act according to political positions taken by supporters and non-supporters of the act. The paper will then take a close look at who would be affected by the bill and how in addition to closing with predictions for the future of the legislation as well as outcomes for usage of the bill. These considerations are part of a need to analyze our current immigration system based on the increasing number of families with “Americanized” children being deported and entering schools in Mexico which are not equipped to integrate them successfully in addition to President Obama’s recent announcement to end deportation of some illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
It is important to note that Utah’s Guest Worker Bill is not the first of it’s kind to gain national attention, but it is the first to become state law. In 1995 California farmers developed a similar proposal that would have allowed migrant farm workers to be admitted to the United States in order to fill agricultural jobs that were not filled with US citizens. President Clinton openly opposed the proposal for many reasons, which will be discussed later in this paper during discussion of the pros and cons. The Utah legislation was developed beginning late 2010 after Arizona passed the controversial bill allowing police to check the immigration status of illegal suspects. HB 116, widely supported by many Utah businesses as well as the LDS church was debated fervently for months while congress attempted to find a comprehensive approach to addressing illegal immigration while attempting to avoid the bad publicity the state of Arizona received. In compromise members of congress agreed to include enforcement measures for immigration in addition to the guest worker language that would require illegal immigrants to meet a variety of criteria in order to participate. These include requirements such as the undocumented worker must be 18 years or older, live in Utah but not lawfully present in the United States as well as agree to a criminal background check, and pay a significant fine among others.
With such strict requirements for those wishing to take advantage of the GWPA it is important to look closely at the pros and cons of such a program within the state. First, this program would create a database of information on illegal immigrants living within the state of Utah. Businesses not participating in the GWPA are allowed to crosscheck this database to ensure those they hire are legal. It also requires a great deal of criminal background checks to include fingerprinting and biometrics. There is an argument circulating that the GWPA will provide some of the greatest protections against identity theft as it provides information, through the database, as to where many undocumented immigrants are living and working. Guest workers must also be able to pay for their own health coverage, education and any other services they receive from the state. They would not be allowed to use unemployment benefits. Employers who hire undocumented immigrants who do not have a working permit under this program would also be subject significant fines.
However, employers who participate openly in the program and hire permitted workers gain significant benefits. Utah is an agricultural state that depends on migrant workers to harvest various crops and work in the meatpacking industry. Many small-scale agricultural enterprises in the state cannot afford to hire year-round, salaried staff and when they find people interested in working they often have to face the problem of high turnover. For example, McMullen Orchards in Payson, Utah is consistently trying to find workers to assist in care of their orchards and harvest yet find it difficult to hire workers who “stick with them.” Migrant workers are usually very willing to come and gain a fair wage for their labor, often leaving family and friends behind for significant periods of time. Without the work of these men and women, many Utah farmers would find it difficult to meet the demands of their harvest and the current system in place, the H2-A program is considered to be unreliable and expensive, according to McMullen Orchards. The GWPA is believed to lessen the burden on employers financially as well as provide an opportunity to fill vacant positions in addition to providing a potential avenue for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.
Unfortunately in recent weeks there has appeared to be a shift in the support for HB 116 within the Utah ranks. On June 19, 2011 GOP delegates in the Utah Republican Party voted to work for the repeal of the act by passing a resolution designed to illustrate the unconstitutionality of HB 116. Opponents consistently point out their belief that the act is a direct violation of the US and Utah constitutions. While there are many good points for the creation and use of a guest worker bill there appear to be many more dissenting voices at this point. Even in 1995 President Clinton insisted that the guest worker program would increase illegal immigration, displace U.S. workers and cause wages and working conditions to decline. There is a significant belief within those opposing the act that it is supporting illegal behavior and acts as “de-facto amnesty.” Many fear that the bill is also very unfair to immigrants who have followed the immigration process for years and are still waiting for their visas.
The Utah Republican Party has been very vocal in their dislike for the bill for many reasons. They believe that it is in direct violation of the Utah Republican Party platform in the opposition of illegal immigration in all forms. As such there is a great deal of worry that this will increase the number of illegal immigrants entering the state which would in turn potentially increase the rates of identity theft and other crimes. An important note to make here, however, is that there is already a great deal of crime committed by undocumented immigrants. One could easily argue that those who apply for work permits under the GWPA are likely not to be the ones involved in illegal activities as they would now be on the radar of law enforcement via the database. There is a fear that it favors hiring illegals over legal Utah citizens at a time when jobs are scarce. Both the sides promoting the Act as well as those opposing the act have addressed important points that could provide a roadmap to where the GWPA may or may not lead.
Utahns have a very important decision to make over the course of the next several months as to whether they will continue to support the GWPA, though at this time it does not appear that many want the bill to remain. Most immigrants, legal or not, are hard-working people seeking to make a way in life for themselves and their families. Immigrants who come to the states legally will likely be discouraged by the fact that they spent a great deal of their own time and money to follow the legal process, while those who entered illegally appear to be gaining employment benefits. While many agricultural businesses are able to fill vacant and quickly overturning positions others would argue that they are not giving legal citizens enough of a chance to fill the jobs.
If the GWPA remains a part of Utah law it will go into effect automatically in March 2013. However, there is a great deal of belief that the federal government will soon become involved to challenge the constitutionality of the bill as it is the business of Congress, not the states, to write immigration law. The bill could end up costing Utah far more money then anticipated. Utah based opponents of the law want to avoid federal lawsuits at all cost and have thus begun to work to repeal GPWA in order to avoid the additional costs of such an act. Yet, at the same time, in May 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the controversial Arizona immigration law. As these two bills are significantly different in their content it is unwise for the supporters of the Utah bill to assume it is safe from federal action. While it is understandable that many business wish to make it easier to fill jobs that many people don’t appear to want, they are overlooking the many legal immigrants who could fill them legally. This bill is not a complete solution for immigration system changes. The problem is far too large to be addressed easily by allowing guest workers to partake in the economy of the United States and will thus, eventually fail, either on the state or federal level.
Dwyer, Devin, “Utah Approves Guest Worker Program for Illegal Immigrants, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/utah-approves-guest-worker-program-illegal-immigrants/story?id=13071198, 7 March 2012.
Hesterman, Billy, “GOP Delegates pass resolution to repeal HB 116,” http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/article_c2bc3f68-d4ae-5c78-bc7c-ec18acbb5dfd.html The Daily Herald, 19 Jun 2011.
MSNBC.com, Obama: Poll shows support for immigration announcement, http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/06/19/12298354-obama-poll-shows-support-for-immigration-announcement?lite, 18 June 2012.
New York Times, American Children, Now Struggling to adjust to life in Mexico, 19 June 2012.
Romboy, Dennis, “Hiring migrant workers a matter of survival for some Utah farms,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705373590/Hiring-migrant-workers-a-matter-of-survival-for-some-Utah-farms.html?pg=2 Deseret News, 30 May 2011.
Utah HB 116, 35A08-301, Requirements to have permit – Purpose of Permit.