Debate over Utah’s guest-worker law heats up

Jeff Tyler Apr 11, 2011

Debate over Utah’s guest-worker law heats up

Jeff Tyler Apr 11, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The governor of Georgia said today he’s going to sign a tough new immigration law the state legislature passed last night. It’s a lot like the one in Arizona that’s on hold in the courts at the moment. Among other things, it would let Georgia police officers check the immigration status of people they stop for questioning. How all this plays out is being watched pretty carefully in Utah, which has three new immigration laws of its own. They are gentler than what other states have done, but still not without controversy.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler paid a visit.

Jeff Tyler: In this remote stretch of central Utah, there are more cattle than people.

Maria Nye owns about 3,000 dairy cows.

Maria Nye: Rosie, how are you? This is one of my daughter’s show cows. And she’s spoiled and she knows it.

Some might say the local workforce is also spoiled.

Nye: I have never had a high-school kid who wanted to come milk cows, drive tractors, drive trucks. All that fun stuff? Sure.

Milking cows is one of those grubby jobs most Americans don’t want. Nye says her workers are here legally. But none were born in this country.

That shouldn’t be surprising, says neighboring dairy farmer and state legislator Bill Wright.

Bill Wright: I asked my legislative cohorts, how many of them are encouraging their sons to go to school and pick fruit? Well, there’s none of ’em. We all think the neighbors are going to do it. Nah. Neighbors’ kids are like yours. They’re just as spoiled as yours. They’re not going to do it either.

I spoke with Wright at the farmhouse he built with the help of his 10 kids. He’s the author of a new law that would bring foreign laborers out of the shadows by giving them guest-worker visas.

Wright: You have to have background checks. You have to be paying your taxes. You have to be willing to work.

Of course, states can’t set immigration policy. That’s up to the feds. So, even though it was signed into law last month, the guest-worker program won’t go into effect for two years, giving Utah time to seek a waiver from the federal government.

Wright: We have a responsibility to petition the federal government to say, ‘We have a problem. We’re willing to help. You can stick your head in the sand, or maybe you might want to look at some ideas we have.’

His ideas include making undocumented workers in the state pay a fine of a few thousand dollars. But, after that, they could apply for a guest-worker visa.

State Representative Christopher Herrod opposes the law.

Christopher Herrod: For me, it’s fundamentally unfair to the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people that are trying to come here legally.

Herrod’s wife is from the Ukraine. So he knows first-hand about the challenge of emigrating to this country legally. And Herrod says the guest worker program amounts to amnesty for people who broke the rules.

Herrod: It is pure and simple amnesty. And I wish they would have the courage to call it that.

Bill Wright denies that his new law provides any pathway to citizenship.

Wright: It would not. Guest-worker permit is good for the duration of your working. You’re not eligible to be in the state if you’re not working.

The legislation has inspired fiery rhetoric. Activists on the left go so far as to suggest the law condones slave labor. Conservative critics accuse Wright of promoting illegal immigration.

Wright: A lot of the negative calls are more personal attacks. They’re very angry. They’re very vindictive.

The guest-worker law wasn’t intended to be controversial. In fact, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce supported the legislation because it wanted to avoid the PR pitfalls of Arizona’s approach.

Chamber spokesman Marty Carpenter.

Marty Carpenter: Utah is a tourism-heavy state. We depend on it in our economy. And Arizona lost close to half a billion dollars in convention bookings alone. We were not in a position to have the same thing happen.

Foreign workers help staff Utah ski resorts. They work as hotel maids and restaurant dishwashers. Not to mention construction and agriculture.

Back at the dairy, Maria Nye says people are mistaken in thinking that farmers want to hire immigrants in order to get cheap labor.

Nye: I don’t consider them cheap labor at all. They’re very skilled in what they do. We basically start at, um, about $9 an hour and go up from there. And there are people who work for us who take home more money than I do.

Bill Wright says foreign workers invest a lot of that money locally. They buy cars and houses. He argues that these folks are intertwined in the society. If they were all sent packing, he says, it would devastate the economy.

In Delta, Utah, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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