SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert Thursday said the Obama administration's new deportation policy for illegal immigrants amounts to "amnesty" that welcomes lawbreakers.
"It's certainly de facto amnesty. I'm surprised that President Obama took the position he did," Herbert said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7. "I worry that it's more about politics than principle."
The new policy announced last week allows many illegal immigrants to remain in the country and apply for a work permit, while directing immigration officials to focus on deporting only dangerous criminals.
"I think that sends the wrong message," the governor said, even though the federal government has already been targeting only the worst offenders for deportation because of limited resources.
Making that practice an official policy, however, tells the undocumented "we're only going to prosecute those few over here and the rest of you come on in," Herbert said. "The doormat has welcome on it and you're welcome to come in despite of breaking the law."
The state's controversial new guest worker law, Herbert said, is different from the new federal policy. That law, signed by the governor, creates a state guest worker program set to take effect in 2013 or sooner if a federal waiver is granted.
"Those are people who are already here," the governor said. Since states have no power to deport illegal immigrants, he said it provides a way to know who is in the state.
He said the legislation, opposed by many of his fellow Republicans, "was not a perfect solution. It was just a start," intended to push the federal government to take action on illegal immigration.
Asked if criticizing new federal policy while Utah selectively prosecutes polygamists is hypocritical, Herbert suggested it could be seen that way, but the state's inaction is a result of not having neither the funds nor the public demand for increased enforcement.
"It's a matter of prioritization," the governor said. "I don't think any of us condone anybody that's breaking the law, in whatever form that is, whether it's a polygamy statute or knocking over the 7-Eleven. We need to enforce the laws and do the best job we can."
The new federal policy was praised last week by another state GOP leader, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who said local, state and national resources are not best used "to go after those who are otherwise law-abiding citizens."
On the topic of political redistricting, Herbert declined to state a preference for redrawing the state's congressional districts including a new fourth seat, saying redistricting was the Legislature's job.
He said he could understand why some Utahns are pressing for largely urban seats in Salt Lake and the St. George areas — and why others want each seat to include both rural and urban areas.
"I'm going to support the Legislature," the governor said. He said he would not veto whatever lawmakers come up with unless "they did something really stupid. But I don't think they will."
Herbert said he expects "they'll try to be fair and balanced in their approach and come up with something they can defend. And the public will say, 'You know what, I think they did a pretty darn good job.' "