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3 open minutes with Bill Wright

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 07 April 2011

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Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley discusses with Utah dairyman and state legislator Bill Wright of Double Tree Dairy in Holden, Utah, the state’s new immigration enforcement and reform bills.

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The bill that Wright sponsored, which was recently signed into law, will petition the federal government to allow Utah to create a legalized state guest worker program for illegal immigrants who hold a current job, have health insurance, have not committed a felony and pay a one-time fine as well as current taxes.

Q. How long have you been a dairyman?

A. Wright: I’ve been in the business 50 years. We milk about 500 cows. We do a lot of embryo transfers, cattle marketing and showing. I’m currently a director on the board for Holstein Association USA. Our focus is more on purebred breeding and not commercial milk production.

Q. How long have you been a state representative?

A. Wright: I went in as a House member originally in ’89 and was in for 12 years and then in the Senate for four years. Then I moved out of my district and didn’t run. Two years ago, the rep from my current district resigned and the governor appointed me, so I’m back in the House now.

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Q. Why did you want to sponsor state guest worker legislation (House Bill 116)?

A. Wright: We needed to sponsor House Bill 116 because we’re a bit behind on this immigration thing. Nothing is being done. If we had a high level of enforcement 30 years ago, we probably would have solved the current problem. But we’re past the point of enforcement solving this problem. We have such a huge number of contributors to our society who are here illegally.

Q. But new laws just passed in Utah will call for stricter immigration enforcement, right?

A. Wright: We do have some new enforcement legislation in Utah. We should have a high level of enforcement for those who are criminals. But if you try to enforce the current immigration law on people who are contributing citizens in our economy, it just doesn’t work. It creates chaos.

There are those who say we should strictly enforce the current law and that the more punitive we get, the more threatening we will be. Condemn and criticize – I just don’t think that’s the right way to go. We believe we can organize this situation besides enforcement-only.

Q. Explain briefly Utah’s guest worker program.

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A. Wright: What we’ve devised is a guest worker program that actually allows people who qualify through background checks, who have plenty of screening, who are good citizens and who actually have a job to obtain a guest worker permit that would allow them to be here for a period of time, as long as they are working. If they don’t have a job, we ask them to leave.

Q. To get a permit, will applicants have to pay fees?

A. Wright: If this is implemented, there is a fine for illegally residing within our borders, but the fine will depend on how you first came into the U.S. For example, they had a visa to enter legally, it expired and then they just never returned home. Or, for example, we have those workers who came across the border illegally, with a coyote. The fines would be different depending on the situation, but there is a fine involved for breaking the law.

Q. Will the fees collected make the program self-sustaining?

A. Wright: It’s revenue-neutral. We will charge the applicant for a guest worker card what it actually costs to process the card and get it. The applicant will have to pay for his or her background check and everything. Initially, when it is implemented, there will be a $4 million cost to the state to develop a database to keep track of guest workers’ applications and renewals.

After that, there’s an ongoing positive fiscal note of more than $12 million because we’ll be collecting state taxes. We assume not all these people are paying taxes.

To have a guest worker permit and maintain it, guest workers will have to withhold Social Security, federal and state income taxes. Eventually, after it gets going, it will have a positive fiscal impact for the state of Utah.

Q. For Utah’s new guest worker program to get off the ground, you’ll be asking Congress for a waiver. Why?

A. Wright: It’s the federal government’s responsibility to be our nation’s first line of defense, which includes securing our borders. They have failed to take care of that responsibility, so they need to start listening to the states.

We need to work together and let the states collectively develop a solution that will take care of the situation we’re in right now. And if we don’t do that, then this problem is not going to be solved.

The bill petitions the federal government for a waiver to implement our own program in the absence of its own inaction. If they don’t or won’t grant us a waiver, then in two years, when the program is implemented, we’ve basically said, “If you’re not going to listen to us or act, then come fight us in court.”

Q. Where did you get the idea for this bill?

A. Wright: I’ve been working on this legislation since last summer. I think it’s a fairly simple concept. If you have a job and you meet the qualifications, you can get a guest worker permit. We won’t have quotas. If you don’t have a guest worker permit and you’re here, it’s for one of two reasons – either there are no jobs or you’re not a very good employee. In either case, we would invite you to leave.

Q. Was it difficult to get enough votes to pass the bill?

A. Wright: Yes, it was. There’s lots of contention. There are those people that feel that everybody just needs to go home. The anger and rancor actually comes from those who think they have an employment entitlement. There is a great mentality in our society about entitlement.

We talk about welfare entitlements, health care entitlements, food entitlements and home-loan entitlements. There’s a segment out there that feels because they were born in America, they’re entitled to the jobs, whether they perform or are productive or not.

This is about labor entitlement. There’s no question that unauthorized workers are more productive in their current jobs than the labor entitlement group. I think that’s contrary to common sense in business. We shouldn’t have to employ people at certain levels who are not productive.

Q. So the bill did pass. What happens next?

A. Wright: Right now, if it were actually implemented, it would be unconstitutional, but we’re not implementing it yet. We’re asking for a federal waiver. We’re hoping it plays out that other people join us to petition the federal government for something to be done.

We’ve already started playing it out because between me and other Utah elected officials we have probably done several hundred interviews in the last two or three weeks. We’ve laid out some principles of how to do immigration reform. Those principles are in our state legislation. And we’ll go from there.

I’m no prophet. I’m not sure what will happen, but there’s been a lot of interest. We’ve had many calls from all over the country. There’s a real thirst in our country for doing something. Utah has stepped out and crossed the line, and then in a way, has challenged what we’re doing.

We’re saying, “Look, let’s all get in this ball game. We can help each other. You know, come and play ball with us so we can solve this problem. We’re tired of sticking our heads in the sand. We’re tired of just saying this thing’s going to go away.” It is not going to go away.

Q. Is immigration reform the No. 1 challenge facing today’s dairy industry?

A. Wright: My opinion is different than the dairy industry’s as a whole. I told you about our herd and what we do. If every immigrant went home tomorrow, it would give me an advantage like I’ve never had before because I can actually do my own work. There are a lot who are so big they can’t, and it would be devastating to the dairy business as a whole.

But I’m not looking out for just me. I’m looking at the business as a whole. We don’t have U.S. citizens who are willing to milk. They have grown up in an such an entitlement environment, that even if a job was open, they absolutely wouldn’t do it.

However, I think the top three dairy industry issues are volatility in milk and feed markets, regulation and immigration, in that order. Riding the ups and downs of the milk and feed markets is devastating to us. PD

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