SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch said he skipped a vote on the failed DREAM Act over the weekend because it was a "cynical exercise in political charades" by the Senate's Democratic leadership.
The act, intended to help undocumented youths earn citizenship by attending college or serving in the military, failed 55-41 on Saturday with the support of just three Republicans, including Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
Hatch, also R-Utah, was an original sponsor of the act first introduced years ago but said he would have voted against it had he not been in Missouri attending a grandson's college graduation.
"The American people sent a clear message in the November elections that they want Congress to focus on getting the economy moving," he said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, Senate majority leaders have opted instead to move ahead with show votes aimed at currying favor with their far left political constituencies."
Just six months ago, Hatch spoke in favor of the act at a town hall meeting in Layton. On July 7, the senator told the audience he's against amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants but supports the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
"A lot of these kids are brought in as infants. They don't even know that they're not citizens until they graduate from high school," Hatch said. "If they've lived good lives and they've done good things, why would we penalize them and not let them at least go to school?"
Hatch spokesman Mark Eddington said the quote is taken out of context. He said the senator was not suggesting he held a different position on this issue but "is acknowledging there is a problem here."
Eddington said Hatch believes "there's no way we can or should do anything on immigration until the American people have confidence that our borders are secure. And the fact is they aren't."
Drugs like meth come into Utah from Mexico, Eddington said, "and with those drugs come violence, murder, drug and human trafficking. This is serious. So there's no change here — his position is a recognition of a basic reality."
Hatch is up for re-election in 2012 and, after seeing Bennett defeated by conservatives at the GOP state convention last May, is anticipating a tough fight. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has said he is considering challenging the senator.
Immigration is a "nettlesome issue for politicians these days, particularly in the state of Utah," said Kelly Patterson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Patterson said the act has already been "characterized as amnesty" for illegal immigrants. "Those are not labels that help him in any effort to seek re-nomination."
But had Hatch cast a vote against the act, he may well have been criticized for changing his position. "What's more likely to hurt you, being labeled a flip-flopper or being too soft on immigration?"
By not voting, Patterson said Hatch was attempting to find some middle ground.
"The more you have to explain yourself to voters, the worse off you are," he said.
A number of Utahns had backed the act and expressed disappointment at its defeat. Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake said he was saddened by the vote.
"It is tragic for these bright, young immigrants and a loss for our country," Wester said in a statement. He thanked Bennett "for his courage and leadership in voting for the DREAM Act" and said he will continue to advocate for both the act "and for humane reform of our broken immigration system."