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The Associated Press March 10, 2011, 10:23AM ET

Lawsuits threatened over Utah immigration bills

A controversial immigration package approved by Utah lawmakers last week has groups on both sides of the debate threatening to boycott Utah and sue the state.

The package includes an Arizona-style enforcement law and a guest worker program that allows illegal immigrants to live and work in Utah.

The enforcement law is not as stringent as Arizona's, but still likely to be litigated. Police would be required to check the immigrant status of anyone stopped for a felony or serious misdemeanor. A person stopped for lesser infractions would be questioned at the discretion of the officer, and only if a person does not have valid identification.

The Arizona law approved last year drew nationwide controversy over provisions requiring police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if they have reasonable suspicion they're here illegally. That aspect of the law was put on hold by a federal judge.

The Utah bills are awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert's approval. He previously said he supports the package generally, but has not committed to signing all of the bills.

The guest worker permits, in particular, have angered many conservatives, and some groups are pledging to hold The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accountable for supporting what they call an amnesty program.

At the same time, immigrant rights groups are pointing to Utah as a potential model for other states and the federal government.

"It's unprecedented that a state has come up with an idea about how to legalize illegal immigrants already living in the state," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based group supportive of a legal status for illegal immigrants. "It's a bold, innovative statement. The Obama administration should take notice, support the program and start a dialogue with the state."

But the reform package as a whole "is not the right balance," Sharry said. Enforcement laws are necessary for serious criminals, but Utah still goes too far because it opens the door for racial profiling and will hurt relationships between immigrant communities and police.

"It's an invitation to mischief," Sharry said.

Ana Avendano, Immigrant Worker Program director for the AFL-CIO, said the guest worker permits give employers cheap labor without providing additional protections for workers or a path to citizenship.

"It gives illegal immigrants false hope because it makes them think they could become legal," Avendano said. "But they're still illegal, and could be deported."

She said the enforcement law also puts illegal immigrants in constant fear of police and makes them reluctant to report workplace accidents or mistreatment by an employer.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, said the guest worker program violates federal law and negates any benefit from the enforcement measure.

His political action committee, one of the largest anti-illegal immigration groups in the country, expects to file a lawsuit if the bill is signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. He said his group would encourage a tourism boycott of Utah and would launch a public relations campaign to denounce support of the program by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"This will only encourage illegal immigrants to come to Utah," Gheen said. "It's the height of hypocrisy. After all of the illegal immigrants sign up for permits, who will there be to enforce the law against? The amnesty provisions nullify all of the enforcement provisions."

Mormon church leadership did not take any position on the immigration legislation, spokeswoman Kim Farah said. They have emphasized some guiding principles, such as compassion for neighbors and a concern for keeping families together, she said.

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