SANDY — Delegates to the state GOP convention Saturday narrowly approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the repeal of the state's controversial guest worker program for undocumented immigrants.
The 833-739 vote came after just 10 minutes of debate over the resolution opposing HB116, passed by the GOP-controlled 2011 Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
HB116, set to take effect in 2013 or sooner if a federal waiver is granted, allows illegal immigrants to work in the state if they submit to a criminal background check and pay a fine.
The resolution said the guest worker program violates the U.S. Constitution and the party's stand against amnesty for workers who have entered the country illegally. It also expresses concern over Republican backing of HB116.
Herbert told the delegates gathered at the South Towne Expo Center that he disagreed this was a fight for control of the party.
"As the Republican governor, I think that kind of thinking is a bunch of bunk," he said after the vote. "I'm here to tell you the heart and soul of the Republican Party is alive and well."
Those behind the repeal effort relished their victory.
"I am happy," Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. "I think it makes sure we will move in the right direction." But he, too, said, "too much has been made that it's the end of the Republican Party, it's a fracture. I think there would have been a festering sore if it had lost."
David Kirkham, an organizer of the tea party movement in Utah, said the Republicans who supported HB116 should be worried. "This is a powerful message," he said. "This was a very hard-fought battle with the establishment, and we won."
The guest worker program has broad support, including from the Salt Lake Chamber. A Deseret News/KSL TV poll found that 61 percent of Utahns favor the guest worker program and most opposed the GOP effort to repeal the law.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently issued a statement of support for "an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship."
On Saturday, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement issued after the vote "the Church has made its position on immigration clear."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said it's now up to lawmakers to decide what their constituents want them to do about HB116. Waddoups said he expects to see legislation to amend and even repeal the law next session.
"We are clearly very divided on this issue," the convention chairwoman, former Utah congresswoman Enid Mickelsen, said after announcing the vote.
Mickelsen had earlier admonished the nearly 2,100 delegates to keep the debate civil.
"The people who disagree with us truly are not in this room," Mickelsen said at the beginning of the daylong convention. "It's going to be easier for us to pull together when this is over if we treat each other with respect now."
Both sides lobbied delegates before Saturday's vote, handing out T-shirts, stickers and brochures from convention booths. A number of state lawmakers showed up to personally defend their votes for HB116.
While the resolution was the most controversial issue delegates dealt with before adjourning late Saturday afternoon, they also gave current party chairman Thomas Wright a new term, but replaced vice chairwoman Christy Achziger with Lowell Nelson and secretary Dana Dickson with Drew Chamberlain.
The convention's keynote speaker, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, delivered his usual "don't raise taxes" message but tied the pledge to a call for party unity.
Sticking to a pledge of no new taxes, he said, will force the Democrats to turn on each other. Republicans don't have to "agree on what we do with our freedom," just that everyone should be free, Norquist said.
There were reminders at the convention that there's a GOP presidential race under way.
A booth set up for former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who will announce his White House bid Tuesday, featured the opportunity to pose astride a shiny Harley Davidson motorcycle next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Huntsman in a suit.
And there was also a cardboard likeness of Utah's other favorite son in the race, Mitt Romney, next to a cutout of former President Ronald Reagan, at the Young Republicans booth.