Immigration reform has been a federal topic since the signing of the constitution. Steeped in tradition but clouded with doubt, the U.S. government has historically experienced difficulty tracking immigrant workers. Recognizing several problems in America's H-2A program, the state of Utah has adopted its own system of immigrant immersion into society.
Coined the "common sense solution," Utah signed House Bill 116 into law in March. Republican State Representative Bill Wright, a fulltime dairy producer, was responsible for introducing the legislation.
The representative says that he was able to bring both perspectives to the table because Utah's political body is comprised of a citizen's legislature where politicians are afforded the time to hold additional fulltime jobs.
"As a farmer, I try to look at things with common sense," Wright says. "That's maybe what brought us to pass the bill last year in the Utah House that's known as House Bill 116."
The first-of-its-kind regional immigration reform policy created a guest worker act for current migrant workers in Utah. Wright devised the program after discussing it with federal politicians who, he says, are "paralyzed by bipartisan lines and politics."
"We've proposed a number of solutions to the big problems but the U.S. Congress is totally inept," Wright says. "They have really no ability to move forward with these problems, so we decided that maybe we could solve some of the issues ourselves."
"Of all those problems, immigration is probably the most difficult to fix because of the social and emotional problems associated with it," he has found.
Wright removed himself from such societal pressure and, in 2010, began drafting a bill that would work to identify migrant workers in Utah under a piece of legislation known as "The Utah Compact."
"When any groups look at immigration, they usually look at it through one eye about how it affects a certain issue," he says, referencing his agricultural connection. "I approached the issue looking for a solution to the entire problem."
In its early stages, HB 116's goal was to provide worker permits to guest workers so that Utah could begin identifying the number of misdocumented immigrants were residing in its borders.
Proposing that Utah could be "a laboratory for a federal experiment," Wright and other state politicians asked the federal government to partner with them on their immigration system but the request was denied.
As Wright moved forward with his proposal, the program's scope grew to include the need for immigrant workers to be represented as a valued part of their communities. That notion was met with intimidation tactics from those opposed to immigration reform.
"For the first time in my life in the legislature, I felt threatened," Wright admitted, explaining that he received hate messages and threatening mail. "That opened my eyes to the prejudice and emotional feelings that are associated with this issue. It also pushed me to move forward."
Saying that federal restrictions had left Utah entrapped in uncertainty, HB 116 gained traction and ultimately received bipartisan support before it became law in March. Today, the program allows the state to identify all workers and provide them with basic employee rights through their own immigration system.
To be eligible for an existing guest worker permit in Utah, immigrants need to: be employed in the state for a certain amount of time (to prevent Utah from becoming a magnet state for immigrants), pass a background check, have no outstanding debt and be proficient in or learning English. Immigrants would have to pay $2,500 for permits or pay $1,000 for overstaying a visa in the U.S. Their families would be included in the permits.
Along with a permit for legal employment, the workers are then offered the same rights as other U.S. employees.
"Though this program, employees can be square with the government and can come here and be citizens, earn their way and be productive in our society today," Wright says. "Like everyone else, these people now pay for the use of hospital, roads and other public services."
Those with the new guest worker permits are also eligible to receive driver's privilege cards. Similar to a driver's license, the document allows the migrant workers to drive legally and apply for auto insurance.
Though immigrant workers would need to renew their guest worker permit on a biennial basis, Wright ensures that the permit in no way ties them to their current job.
"You have freedom to move between jobs," he says. "You have the opportunity to live within the state, be able to work and make a living and be a good citizen. This is making our communities better."
At the onset of the program, some were afraid that immigrants would not voluntarily join the program. In less than one year though, more than 42,000 misdocumented immigrant workers have paid fines and secured a driver's privilege card.
"They came forward by themselves, voluntarily saying they were not citizens but they want to be good participants," Wright beams. "I think that's phenomenal."
In total, Wright estimates that the implementation of the bill cost Utah in excess of $3 million. He forecasts, though, that the program will repay more than $12 million per year ongoing in state taxes.
Because the U.S. government has not partnered with the state program, Utah is pooling all federal taxes into a fund to be decided on use at a later date. Social security for each migrant worker can be collected when they return to his home country.
At this time, the program provides no pathway to citizenship or naturalization but Wright believes that step is probable.
"We have to continue to have workers," he says.
Still, without federal participation, all illegal immigrants who sign up for the program are not protected from federal intervention under HB 116.
"We can't do that, but we can sure start a system where we can identify people who come forward with a background check," Wright says. "There are plenty of restrictions to weed out those that are bad players. There are only a few that are bad actors, but the people we've found are good."
"We don't think anyone ought to stay here that's in violation of the laws of our country; this is a way for us to start dividing," he continues. "This bill is drafted on the premise that we are not going to send everybody home. We don't have the financial resources to do it, so if we're going to spend some time sending some home, at least send home the criminals and not the guy out there on the dairy farm that's actually working and paying taxes."
With very little argument from U.S. legislators, Wright says that he is "delighted that this very controversial bill is now a part of Utah legislation.
"It's logical, it's common sense and it allows people to function in our society," he says, adding that the program is self-regulating and fairly easy to implement.
Wright's hope is that other states will follow in Utah's footsteps so that the federal government will take notice.
"We're moving forward and we're hoping that other states and other associations might join us in being able to implement," he says. "It's going to take a coalition of states and individuals to better our society. When we get a critical mass, you'll see Congress start to take action."