Undocumented workers in the state of Utah could soon be eligible to apply for a new guest worker program that was approved by state legislators on Friday night.

The ground-breaking proposal to deal with illegal workers, the first of its kind in the U.S., was green-lighted along with a number of other immigration measures, such as giving Utah police officers the right to investigate the legal status of a person arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor.

The guest worker program will require a federal waiver in order to be enforceable, and if it is granted eligible immigrants will be able to apply for a permit that will give them permission to legally work and reside in Utah.

The law could have major ramifications for other states and for other undocumented communities, including the Irish.

Legislators in Utah went to great lengths to avoid the national controversy that engulfed the strident immigration law passed by Arizona last year, which among other things would allow police officers to question the status of those questioned for even minor offenses. That provision from Arizona is currently on hold pending a federal legal challenge.

While Utah representatives wanted to strengthen the state’s immigration enforcement provisions, particularly as they related to criminal aliens, compassion was also a key component of deliberations.

Should the federal government grant the guest worker waiver, Utah’s bill could become a prototype for other states grappling with the immigration issue – a hot-button topic that the federal government has been unable to deal with.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says that the waiver should be granted because the federal government “has failed to take care of this issue and probably won't for at least a few years."

The bill has its detractors and supporters in Utah, and the debate will undoubtedly go national once the bill is signed by Governor Gary Herbert, who has indicated his support.

“Obviously as the chief cheerleader of the state, I care about image, I care about the perception people have about Utah,” Herbert said.

Legislators who oppose the guest worker provision of the bill feel that it will only encourage illegal immigration to the state.

“People think we’ll be seen as compassionate,” said Republican Representative Chris Herrod. “People will actually see us as weak. They will see we don’t care about the rule of law.”

Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, sees things differently.

“We were only comfortable with enforcement going along with a guest-worker program and creating an environment for all productive members of our society to participate fully,” he said.