Latino lawmakers, advocates press for work permits for certain undocumented immigrants

State Rep. Angela Romero, left, and Sen. Luz Escamilla at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 16. Both lawmakers back efforts to expand the pool of undocumented immigrants who can get work permits.

State Rep. Angela Romero, left, and Sen. Luz Escamilla at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 16. Both lawmakers back efforts to expand the pool of undocumented immigrants who can get work permits. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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WASHINGTON — As many Republican lawmakers clamor about the dangers they say undocumented immigrants pose, a coalition of Latino lawmakers is pushing the other way — touting an initiative to let certain classes of undocumented immigrants legally work in the country.

The American Business Immigration Coalition hosted a virtual press conference Tuesday to press President Joe Biden to create two new work permit programs geared to the undocumented population. State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was one of several officials from across the country who spoke on behalf of the effort, also backed by state Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

"What we're seeing at the state level right now is our communities being dehumanized, people using us as rhetoric," said Romero, president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators which was a co-sponsor of the press conference.

Certain immigrants brought illegally to the country as children by their parents, known as "Dreamers," are among the population segments that would be able to get work permits, and Romero zeroed in on them. More broadly, participants in Tuesday's press conference — including state lawmakers and others from Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Nevada — cited the contributions of the undocumented workforce to the U.S. economy.

"These are the children that I represent. These are the families that I represent, and (there's) nothing more heartbreaking to see a young person who has done everything they wanted to achieve this American dream but yet still can't work because of their status," Romero said. The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, creates a pathway to work authorization for many "Dreamers," but around 600,000 don't qualify and would benefit from the proposed work permit expansion.

The proponents of the change — including three Latino lawmakers, U.S. Reps. Jesus Garcia of Illinois, Adriano Espaillat of New York and Lou Correa of California, all Democrats — also ask Biden to create a work-permit program for long-term undocumented workers in the country. Finally, they ask that an existing program geared to the immigrant spouses and parents of U.S. military personnel be expanded to include undocumented family members of a wider pool of U.S. citizens.

"We need workers. We have a deficit of workers. These are great families, great relatives. They are loyal to our country and it's time now to act," said Sol Trujillo, chairman of Trujillo Group Investments and another speaker. Proponents estimate that enacting the changes would bolster annual tax revenue across the country by $13.8 billion.

The immigration issue is front and center on the U.S. political radar screen and many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have expressed increasing alarm about the negative impacts of undocumented immigration amid record apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is pushing a measure that would require proof of U.S. citizenship to vote. Utah lawmakers passed a measure during the 2024 session, HB165, that its chief sponsor, Rep. Trevor Lee, sees as a potential precursor to sterner state action to crack down on undocumented immigration.

Indeed, Romero said she has seen "a big change and shift" in attitude among Utah lawmakers toward undocumented immigrants. Utah lawmakers in years past approved legislation letting undocumented immigrants get driver-privilege cards and allowing them access to in-state tuition rates at public universities, she noted. Now, though, "people are starting to back away and they're starting to dehumanize our communities," she went on.

Romero singled out Lee's initiative geared toward voting by undocumented immigrants in taking a stand on the issue. Critics have noted that there's scant evidence undocumented immigrants are voting in U.S. elections and that U.S. law already bars them from voting.

"There's no facts behind it, so we as elected officials need to stand up," Romero said. She's among 150 state and local officials who have signed onto an open letter from Garcia, Espaillat and Correa asking Biden to act on the issue. Escamilla has also signed on to the letter.

Despite strong talk against undocumented immigration by many GOP lawmakers, Al Cardenas, co-chairman of the American Business Immigration Coalition, suspects efforts to expand work permits to more undocumented immigrants would garner GOP support. He's a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

The nation faces inflationary issues and challenges in funding entitlement programs like Social Security, he said. "Every Republican I know wants to fix those problems. ... And the way to do so is to provide working permits to these millions of people who are well-deserving."

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for 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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