Utah lawmaker hints at Texas-style action, says new law aims to help get handle on immigration

Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, with Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 26. Lee authored a bill asking federal immigration officials to advise state officials when sending undocumented immigrants to Utah.

Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, with Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 26. Lee authored a bill asking federal immigration officials to advise state officials when sending undocumented immigrants to Utah. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News via AP)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Rep. Trevor Lee says the feedback from voters has been clear.

"We're getting tons of messages from our constituents on the problems and the concerns with the border because that border is not just Texas, Arizona, California," he said. "It's greatly affecting Utah."

As such, the state lawmaker authored HB165, requiring federal officials to inform Utah authorities three days in advance when they plan to send undocumented immigrants to the state. The aim is to help local law enforcement authorities prepare, and he called the bill a "warning shot" and possible precursor to legislation down the road, akin to a controversial and contested Texas law targeting illegal immigration there.

Problems linked to illegal immigration are "starting to really come to fruition here, and there's definitely an appetite to make sure we handle it and do something about it," said Lee, a Layton Republican.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox referenced HB165, which he signed into law last week, during his monthly PBS Utah press conference on Thursday. He also hinted that states may have to be more aggressive in addressing immigration issues and the influx of undocumented immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Texas law — on hold while it faces review in federal court — would give Texas officials authority to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants, duties typically done only by federal officials.

"We passed another bill to show that we're not a sanctuary state that requires ICE to communicate with us if they're going to release someone in the state who is undocumented, who is not here legally," Cox said, alluding to HB165. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is tasked with enforcing U.S. immigration law.

He went on to lament the "dysfunctional" federal response to the border issue, saying it increases the pressure on states to act. "If we have people in our custody and ICE isn't willing to take them and deport them, then I guess ... the states are going to have to do that," he said.

The strong talk notwithstanding, ICE said in a statement to KSL.com that the government agency doesn't dictate where paroled immigrants — those not in detention — go. "When noncitizens are in our custody, we make the determination. Once they are paroled into the U.S. and not in custody, they make their own choices," the agency said.

Moreover, ICE does not cover travel costs of "nondetained individuals." "All foreign nationals on a nondetained status who must meet with ICE personnel are responsible for all travel coordination and related expenses," ICE stated.

An Ogden immigration attorney, Jon Bachison, said he's not heard of ICE shipping immigrants around the country and releasing them, at least in dealings he's had with his clients. "I've not heard of that. ... That has not been my experience," he said.

Nevertheless, Lee, who spoke with KSL.com after Cox's press conference on Thursday, expressed skepticism about the agency. He believes the agency is sending immigrants "all around the country, including Utah," but won't publicly admit to it.

More pointedly, he spoke of pursuing stronger legislation if HB165 doesn't yield results. He sees HB165 as a bid to spur better communication between Utah and federal immigration officials and to get a handle on the whereabouts of undocumented immigrants.

"If our bill doesn't work, 165, then our next option or next route we're going to have to go is follow Texas and just take matters into our own hands," Lee said. The new Utah law lacks an enforcement mechanism, he said, and future legislation could entail authorizing the Utah National Guard to capture and deport undocumented immigrants in Utah — similar to the stalled Texas law.

Given the feedback lawmakers are getting from their constituents on the issue, Lee senses strong support among his legislative colleagues to press the issue. Cox last month announced plans to send state troopers and Utah National Guard members to Texas to aid state officials there in securing the Texas-Mexico border.

Covering the health and education costs of undocumented immigrants "is extremely expensive to our state," Lee said.

Asked at Thursday's press conference whether the talk about cracking down on illegal immigration runs counter to the Utah Compact, Cox said, "I don't think so, I really don't."

The Utah Compact, initially adopted in 2010 and "reaffirmed" by signatories in 2019, calls on the federal government to take the lead on immigration policy questions. It calls on local law enforcement to focus on criminal activities, "not civil violations of federal code," and touts a "humane approach" in contending with immigrants living in Utah.

"The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill," the document states.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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