SALT LAKE CITY — In the month since Utah passed a controversial package of immigration reform legislation the country's been buzzing with praise and criticism.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday reiterated its appreciation for the legislation. On the same day, Bishop John C. Wester, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, visited with President Barack Obama to discuss Utah's approach to immigration reform.
In the meantime, the chair of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee called on the U.S. government this week to sue Utah over the laws. Republicans in Utah are gathering support in hopes of getting some of the legislation repealed.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed four bills into law March 15. The laws, among other things, would establish local enforcement of federal immigration laws and give undocumented immigrants already living in Utah a legal avenue to work. The laws will not go into effect until July 2013 and would require a waiver from the federal government.
The LDS Church published a short affirmation on its website of its support of the immigration legislation. A spokesman said the post was meant to "reiterate" what the Church has already said, not to serve as a new statement.
"The Church has spoken a number of times about the issue of immigration," the post reads. "Specifically, it has spoken in support of the Utah Compact and has described the package of bills passed by the Utah Legislature, taken together, as a 'responsible approach' to the difficult question of immigration reform."
The LDS Church's position is based on three basic principles:
"The commandment to 'love thy neighbor.'"
"The importance of keeping families intact."
"The federal government's obligation to secure its borders."
In his conversation with U.S. leaders, Wester stressed similar values, according to a report in Intermountain Catholic.
"What I mentioned to the president was that my strategy is to put a human face on immigration," he said. "I think people, when they respond to an issue, they stay at a cerebral level, but when you put a human face on it they get their hearts involved and they tend to take a different approach."
Wester was one of about 70 religious, business, labor, civil rights leaders and law enforcers Obama gathered for a discussion of a national overhaul of the immigration system.
"The president urged meeting participants to take a public and active role to lead a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system," the White House said. "He stressed that in order to successfully tackle this issue they must bring the debate to communities around the country and involve many sectors of American society in insisting that Congress act to create a system that meets our nation's needs for the 21st century and that upholds America's history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, doesn't feel the same. Earlier this week, the Texas legislator sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to sue Utah.
"This is hypocritical," Smith said in a statement to The Associated Press. "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 asserted that Utah's legislation would interfere with a national solution.
If the Obama administration is "serious about having a uniform immigration policy rather than a 'patchwork' of state immigration laws you profess to oppose," he wrote, the country "needs to take action against the Utah law."
The Salt Lake County Republican Party Organizing Convention, in the meantime, is calling for the repeal of HB116, which makes it legal for undocumented immigrants already living in Utah to work. The law sets up a process for undocumented immigrants living in Utah before May 11, 2011, to obtain a guest worker permit. Applicants would be fined $2,500 — $1,000 for overstaying a visa — for entering the country illegally.
More than 2,500 people have signed an online petition at www.repeal116.com supporting the repeal, said Brandon Beckham, a Utah state GOP delegate from Orem.
"Gov. Herbert should not have signed the bill," he said. "The (Republican) delegates now hope to emphasize the consequences of our elected officials' actions while also encouraging them to step up and do the right thing — repeal HB116."
Sixty-five percent of Utahns said they support the state's efforts to resolve immigration issues despite the likelihood that at least two of the bills may be deemed unconstitutional, according to a Deseret News-KSL poll.
Herbert issued a statement this week encouraging U.S. Congressmen not to waste time "throwing rocks at Utah" by challenging the laws' constitutionality. Instead, legislators should "get off the sidelines" and actually do something about the country's immigration system.
Contributing: Associated Press