Published: 12.01.2005

Arizona, Utah working on border plan
By Howard Fischer

PHOENIX - Unhappy with the lack of federal action, two Western governors are drawing up their own plan to deal with border security and illegal crossers.

Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah hope they can nudge Congress to take up - and ultimately approve - a comprehensive immigration proposal. While several measures have been introduced, none has yet to even make it out of committee.

What might help, said Napolitano, is getting a plan without a political label. That's why Napolitano, a Democrat, said she is working with Huntsman, a Republican.

"The governor and I spoke about how if the Western governors, where the brunt of illegal immigration is being felt right now, could agree on some principles on a bipartisan basis that might help Washington, D.C., along, where everything is divided by partisan affiliations," she said.

"We recognize this is a federal issue," said Michael Mower, Huntsman's deputy chief of staff. But he said the fact that Utah is not a border state does not minimize its interest in solving the problem.

"We are a front-line state when it comes to the impacts from illegal immigration on our public education system, on our health-care system," he said.

Mower said Huntsman believes that states must be actively involved in coming up with a plan rather than simply leaving it up to Congress.

"There are a lot of impacts that take place at the state level that need to be addressed - and need to be a part of the debate," Mower said, including additional federal dollars to cover those higher costs of education and health care. He said Huntsman believes a bipartisan plan would highlight the West's problems.

Napolitano would not discuss what she believes should be in the plan. But she said she considers a proposal being pushed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, a good start.

That legislation, which is not scheduled for a hearing until next year, includes not only more resources for border security but also a new guest-worker program and enhanced penalties for employers who knowingly hire people not here legally. It also sets up a procedure that would allow the estimated 11 million people in this country illegally to gain legal status after paying a fine.

Mower said Huntsman has met with both McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona's other senator and a fellow Republican. Kyl has a competing plan, with the major difference being that illegal entrants would have to return to their home countries before they could seek legal U.S. residence.

Both contain provisions for new guest-worker programs, something Mower said Huntsman believes is important once the primary issue of border security has been addressed.

"In large part, American industry and agriculture have come to rely on a certain labor pool," Mower said. "And we also need to look at a more clearly defined pathway toward citizenship" for illegal immigrants.

Napolitano said there is no deadline for the plan, though there is some interest in having it ready to present to other members of the Western Governors' Association at their February meeting.

Napolitano said the concept of state governors coming up with a plan for federal action is not unique.

"The Western governors did the same on forest-health restoration a couple of years ago where Congress wasn't moving anything forward," she said. "We had these huge tracts of federal land and we agreed upon a bipartisan 10-year strategy for restoring them."

But Napolitano conceded that has not forced Congress to act: The governors are still lobbying for the plan.