SALT LAKE CITY — The Texas congressman who heads the U.S. House Judiciary Committee has accused the Justice Department of being "hypocritical" for not pursuing legal action against a Utah law approving a guest worker program for illegal immigrants.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a letter Monday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Utah law approving the program is unconstitutional, and called the department's inaction a "stark contrast" to the federal government's lawsuit against Arizona for a law "that merely complements and assists in the enforcement of federal immigration law."
"This is hypocritical. If (the Justice Department) chooses not to take legal action against Utah's unconstitutional law, it will be clear the Administration bases their decisions on their own political views rather than constitutional principle," Smith said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The Utah law doesn't take effect for two years, which state officials said was done specifically to avert a lawsuit. The state is seeking a federal waiver.
In his letter, Smith said the government's inaction would reinforce the perception that they only oppose strict enforcement measures such as Arizona's law.
In its challenge to Arizona's law, the Justice Department argued the measure intrudes on its exclusive authority to regulate immigration, disrupts relations between the U.S. and Mexico, hinders cooperation between state and federal officials, and burdens legal immigrants. A federal judge put key parts of Arizona's law on hold last July, a ruling the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld earlier this month.
Smith said that if Obama's administration "is serious about having a uniform immigration policy rather than a 'patchwork' of state immigration laws you profess to oppose, then the Administration needs to take action against the Utah law."
A showdown with federal officials is the last thing Utah wants, the state's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. Shurtleff and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert have met with federal officials, including members of the Justice Department.
Herbert issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday.
"Typical Washington — attempt to deflect criticism that comes from Washington's abject failure to address immigration then sue a state over something that won't even take effect for two years, rather than use those two years to do something positive.
"A lawsuit is completely premature," the Utah governor added. "The people of the U.S. would be better served if the federal government used the time between now and 2013 to actually address immigration, rather than sue Utah for trying to manage the practical realities we face as states due to the absence of federal action."
Shurtleff said Smith's letter is not only wrong, but strictly political.
"He's riding right along the line of the hard right wing radicals," said Shurtleff, a Republican. "He's trying to stick his nose into Utah's business and play politics."
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the letter was being reviewed.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lawyers has argued the federal government hasn't effectively enforced immigration law and that the state's intent in passing the law was to assist federal authorities, as Congress has encouraged.
Utah's guest worker program was part of an immigration reform package signed into law March 15 by Utah's governor. The package included an enforcement measure that was modeled on Arizona's law that goes into effect in May.
The Deseret News and Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed to this story.