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Utah Lawmakers Propose Plan to Offer Work Permits to Illegal Immigrants

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While several states in the U.S. are considering bills to crack down on illegal immigrants and kick them out, a pair of bipartisan lawmakers in Utah are proposing a different plan -- one that they say could generate millions in revenue for the state.

The Utah Pilot Accountability Permit Program bill, backed by Democratic State Sen. Luz Robles and Republican State Rep. Jeremy Peterson, would allow illegal immigrants to work in the state, so long as they had a state-issued work permit. It would require them to undergo criminal background checks, take English classes and pay taxes. The workers would be forced to leave the state if they lost their jobs, and the state would report illegal immigrants who commit major crimes to federal immigration authorities.

The tax revenues from those workers would generate more than $11 million for Utah within six months and $20 million the following year, according to a fiscal note Robles presented yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The fiscal note also estimates the state could generate an additional $18 million from charging immigrants for their work permit cards.

The legislation faces an uphill fight and would without doubt draw legal scrutiny, since regulating immigration falls within the purview of the federal government. Robles has said her bill would require a federal waiver to be enacted. However, she's confident it could survive constitutional challenges since Utah has had no problem issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, USA Today reports.

"I'm not sure the federal government wouldn't be open to offering a waiver on something like this," Robles said, according to the Tribune, "a creative approach that allows the states to be laboratories for solutions."

In the absence of any federal action on immigration reform, several other states have had the same idea -- but most are pursuing legislation that takes a more hardline approach against illegal immigrants.

Andrea Nill at the liberal blog ThinkProgress contends that the Utah bill's approach makes more sense because "the fiscal benefits of Robles' proposal are in line with other studies which have highlighted the positive economic impact of bringing undocumented immigrants out of the underground economy."

She points out that Arizona has already spent more than $1 million simply in its legal battle with the federal government over its own state immigration law, which makes it a state crime to be in there without immigration documentation.

Nevertheless, several states are looking to Arizona as they shape their own laws.

Lawmakers in Indiana are considering a bill to require state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. In Oklahoma, a Senate committee on Tuesday approved a similar bill, as well as a "birthright" bill to deny Oklahoma citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants.

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee this week introduced three conservative immigration bills, including another "Arizona copycat" bill requiring local law enforcement to check the immigration status of the people they stop. In Texas, Republican lawmakers have made it a priority to prohibit so-called "sanctuary city" policies.

In Washington, the issue of immigration reform is largely on the backburner, though some in Congress are calling for an expansion of the E-Verify program, which requires federal contractors to use a government database to verify whether their new hires are legal workers.

Expanding the program would probably face opposition, as the Wall Street Journal reports. Arizona made E-Verify mandatory for all companies in the state in 2008, but their law was challenged in court by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and civil liberties groups.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is ratcheting up its efforts to crack down on companies hiring illegal immigrants, according to the Journal.