The Utah tourism industry got a boost March 4 from the Utah State Legislature when a package of moderate immigration-related bills passed just before the end of the session.
"It's encouraging to see the legislators take a holistic approach," Bill Malone, executive director of the Park City Chamber of Commerce, told OnTheSnow.
Winter and summer tourist promoters feared passage of "Arizona-style" bills that take a hard line on persons living in the United States without proper documentation. In Utah, as in many tourist states, such immigrants come looking for work and fill essential though menial positions at many resorts, like cleaning rooms. Such laws, promoters said, would also discourage out-of-state visitors, especially those of Hispanic descent, from vacationing in the Beehive State.
The package that came out of the 2011 Utah session has been dubbed "sane" by some legal observers. The bills do require police to check the immigration status of anyone arrested on a felony or a serious misdemeanor charge, which is less severe than the Arizona law, but it also proposes a two-year guest worker permit for undocumented foreigners, a migrant worker partnership with Mexico to bring in needed laborers, and sanctions on employers for hiring illegal immigrants outside of those programs.
"The biggest concern was tough legislation would be a turnoff for tourists," Nathan Rafferty, head of the Ski Utah industry organization, told OnTheSnow. "I think the legislators understood that, because it affects not only tourism but new business and business relocations."
Several items in the legislation will have to be negotiated, specifically the guest worker program that would permit immigrants without proper paperwork to work for two years after proving their residence and employment, and paying a fine. The federal government controls immigration law, and the Utah version runs contrary to federal law. Gov. Gary Herbert, who supported the bills, has until mid-2013 to convince federal officials to grant a waiver for the guest worker program.
Anyone who stays at a Rocky Mountain winter resort has likely seen the proliferation of Spanish-speaking employees, particularly those from Mexico, in recent years. However, mountain resorts in Utah and elsewhere don't reveal how many undocumented workers are employed in their lodges, restaurants and other facilities - if they even know. Evidence of their concern, however, was revealed by the intensity with which tourism and farm industries lobbied for passage of bills that would grant some legal status to such workers.
"I see recognition that the (immigration control) system is broken," said Malone. "There's frustration in many states over this. We will have to wait to see how much the federal government will allow in all of this."
The Arizona Legislature passed several strong anti-immigration bills recently that opponents said promoted racial profiling and reportedly cut deeply into the revenues of the tourist and convention business. Included in those laws was a requirement that a police officer need only suspect wrongdoing to question someone on their immigration status. Implementation of the Arizona law has been suspended, pending court hearings. Colorado lawmakers turned aside similar legislation this year, thanks in part to concerns expressed by the ski and snowboard resort industry.
Eleventh-hour finagling prevented similar no-nonsense provisions to become law in Utah, despite strong support from conservatives. Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, told the Deseret News that Utah will be seen as a "state not scared of facing very complicated issues."
Observers believe the moderate, comprehensive approach to the problem came from the so-called Utah Compact, a broad-based proposal that not only supported enforcement but also the need of some businesses for low-cost laborers and a desire to avoid separating family members through deportation.
"Instead of indulging in the fantasy that you can drive thousands of people out of your state, it combines enforcement with the idea that those who are settled should be brought into the system," Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group in Washington that favors legislation by Congress to grant legal status to illegal immigrants, told The New York Times.