Gov. Gary Herbert signed bills Tuesday that will increase immigration enforcement but also implement a guest worker program in Utah, as he formally challenged the federal government to address immigration before states make their own fixes.
The package of four measures the Republican-dominated Legislature passed earlier this month has upset people on both sides of the issue, and Herbert made it clear a primary goal of the package is to force a federal solution.
One of the bills the GOP governor signed at the state Capitol requires police to check the immigration status of anyone stopped for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Another bill, however, creates a guest worker program for illegal immigrants in the state.
The other bills allow businesses to recruit Mexican workers and American citizens to sponsor foreign residents who want to work or study in Utah.
Herbert said the package "is not perfect" but something had to be done because frustration with a broken system was turning into anger.
The guest worker permit bill requires a federal waiver, which is why it will not become effective until 2013. Herbert said that delayed date sends a clear signal from the state that is almost out of patience.
"Our strategy is to force the federal government to engage," Herbert said.
That is already happening, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington, D.C-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. His group is using Utah's immigration package as an example of a balanced program in their discussions with members of Congress, especially Republicans.
Because Utah is "the reddest of the red states," the immigration bills offer a conservative solution to a problem the Democrats in Congress and President Barack Obama cannot provide, said Aguilar, who was the director of the Office of Citizenship for former President George W. Bush.
Unlike Arizona, which passed a controversial law last year focused exclusively on enforcement, Utah has recognized the need for immigrant workers and their benefits to the economy.
"This is a tool conservatives across the county can use," Aguilar said.
Obama administration officials have met with some Utah leaders in the past couple of weeks, including Herbert and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. The administration has not taken a position on the Utah bills but has been "monitoring" the legislation, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said in a statement.
The president "is firmly committed to fixing the broken immigration system through comprehensive reform that requires responsibility and accountability from the federal government, employers, and those seeking legal status in the U.S.," Chandler said.
Herbert signed the bills despite significant criticism from across the country, including promised boycotts and threatened lawsuits.
A Utah-based coalition of Latinos that oppose the enforcement bill started a two-week boycott of Utah businesses Monday.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration has criticized the guest worker plan, saying it's an "amnesty" measure. The group's president, William Gheen, said he is encouraging his supporters to cancel trips to Utah this year and specifically boycott any business that is a member of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber has been one of the most visible supporters of the guest worker plan, saying it's important to the state's economy.