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FAIR Pushing Utah to Take Expensive Anti-Immigrant Plunge

The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday published a lengthy investigative report on the origins of the immigration bill proposed by Utah State Rep. Stephen Sandstrom (R-Orem). Chief among the story’s findings is that Michael Hethmon, general counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), played a major role in crafting the bill.

IRLI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nativist extremist hate group with a penchant for hiring officials who are active in white supremacist organizations and write for anti-immigrant hate sites. FAIR characterizes itself as just another conservative-leaning organization seeking to tighten enforcement of immigration law, but it is the flagship of a network of organizations created by John Tanton, the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement who has produced an abundance of white nationalist commentary. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR as a hate group.

FAIR’s involvement in drafting Utah’s law is no surprise. Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, now mired in litigation, was written by newly elected Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has served as FAIR’s senior counsel. Kobach is one of the attorneys defending the Arizona law in federal court.

And for at least the past six years, FAIR denizens have been hopping from state to state, “helping” localities craft ordinances aimed at barring undocumented immigrants from living and working within their limits. Together or separately, Hethmon, Kobach, and their colleagues at FAIR have created local enforcement ordinances for at least six jurisdictions besides Arizona.

Every one of those jurisdictions has been sued. Every one hired Hethmon or Kobach to defend it. Because of the lawsuits, none of the jurisdictions have been able to enforce their ordinances as originally written. And defending the lawsuits has proven expensive.

Hazleton, Pa., the first town to adopt an IRLI ordinance, racked up $2.4 million in legal fees by the time the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled its ordinance unconstitutional. Despite rescinding its ordinance, Riverside, N.J., owes $82,000 in legal fees. The costs to Farmers Branch, Texas, may exceed $5 million by January, yet the town still plans to appeal the district court’s decision to permanently enjoin its ordinance. Fremont, Neb., is only at the beginning of its legal travails, but has already raised taxes to cover an expected $750,000 in legal fees for fiscal year 2010-11 alone. Valley Park, Mo., was permitted to keep a fragment of its ordinance intact, but paid $240,000 in legal fees for the privilege. Virginia’s Prince William County is still implementing a modified version of its ordinance, which costs millions of dollars per year to enforce and has severely damaged the community’s economy.

Arizona’s legal fees have already surpassed $1 million, and that battle is only just beginning. Moreover, an analysis by the Center for American Progress suggests that the state stands to lose a staggering 4,236 jobs and $752.4 million in business and tax revenue.

All this may explain why Sandstrom was on the defensive even before he’d officially introduced his bill. In August, he declared that he had been consulting with lawyers in Washington to make sure the bill is “absolutely impossible to be litigated against.”

Sandstrom’s confidence doesn’t jibe with IRLI’s track record or with Hethmon’s recent statement about the laws he and his colleagues have been toying with. “Sink or swim, these new laws are forcing Congress to confront the need for enforcement-based reform,” he wrote in a 2010 op-ed for CNN. More important is that they “provoke sustainable immigration reform.”

In other words, Hethmon isn’t terribly upset if the laws he drafts get bogged down in litigation. What matters, he claims, is that they encourage immigration reform of some kind.

There are signs the sailing won’t be smooth for Sandstrom, however. In November, a powerful bipartisan opposition group including civil and religious authorities announced the creation of the “Utah Compact.” The five-point alternative to Sandstrom’s bill stresses that immigration is a federal issue that should be dealt with by the federal government and that immigrants play an important role as workers and taxpayers in Utah’s economy. It also stresses a “humane” approach to immigration reform that takes family ties and social well-being into account. The compact has been endorsed by Utah’s attorney general, two former governors, the highly influential Mormon Church, the Salt Lake County Council, and the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy organization.

The signatories’ resolve and the Salt Lake Tribune’s thorough examination of racist leanings of the organization behind Sandstrom’s bill may well make Utah’s state lawmakers think twice before they sign their state up for a whole lot of expensive legal trouble.

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