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Salt Lake Chamber urges Utah congressmen to get moving on immigration reform

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 6:12 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake Chamber wants the state's congressional delegation to get behind the Utah Compact and advance comprehensive immigration reform this year.

But judging from their responses to a full-page open letter the chamber took out in Salt Lake newspapers Thursday, Utah's two senators and three congressmen don't appear likely to lock arms.

"In the past, comprehensive has been code for amnesty," said Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz. "I think the best path is to tackle it issue by issue."

None of Utah's five members of Congress — four Republicans, one Democrat — have signed the compact, which came out a year ago last week with support from civic, business, community and religious leaders. The document outlines five principles to guide Utah's immigration debate and acknowledges reform is primarily a federal responsibility but should take into account families, economics and the role of law enforcement.

"They can't say it politically, but the fact of the matter is the compact is disingenuous and it's a sham because it tries to hide what the (drafters') real goal is," said Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration. "It is a poorly veiled attempt at amnesty."

The letter, signed by chamber President Lane Beattie, says "it's wrong for elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to do nothing while states bear the burden of millions of undocumented people."

Utah lawmakers passed several illegal immigration reform measures this year, though one is tied up in the courts and another is likely to be repealed. They have also called on the delegation to initiate changes nationally.

Chaffetz, whose bill to lift caps on employment visas recently passed a House committee, said the full-page ad surprised him. "They can pick up the phone to call me, and it doesn't cost as much."

Gov. Gary Herbert defended the delegation at his monthly KUED news conference Thursday saying, "I'm not sure they're not on board with the compact."

"I do see our congressional delegation trying to work behind the scenes with others in Washington, D.C., to see if we can't get the federal government involved as they should," he said.

Herbert also did not sign the compact, but issued his own guiding principles on immigration reform.

The chamber recently asked Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop, Jim Matheson (the lone Democrat) and Chaffetz to clarify their positions on immigration and outline any legislation they're working on.

"They're doing some great things," said chamber spokesman Marty Carpenter. But, he said, the chamber would like to see them work cohesively toward reform.

In response to the open letter, a Hatch spokesman said the senator appreciates how Utahns feel about the issue and the work legislators have done.

"On the federal level, Sen. Hatch is working to fix America's broken immigration system and has introduced legislation based off of the recommendations of Utahns," said Matthew Harakal.

Hatch last year introduced a bill to clamp down on identify theft, streamline the visa system, track the amount of welfare benefits being diverted to illegal immigrants, curb serious abuses of immigration laws and help prevent Mexican cartels from using federal lands to grow marijuana.

Bishop favors a "first-things-first" approach, which to him is securing the border. His bill, which recently passed a House committee, gives the U.S. Border Patrol more access to federal land to curb drug trafficking, human smuggling and illegal immigration.

In his response to the letter, Matheson said for too long both political parties have leveraged the immigration issue for political gain, rather than work together to solve it.

"I understand and share folks' frustration with the current situation," he said.

Matheson lauded Utah's efforts and hopes the president and House and Senate leaders will encourage the appropriate committees to begin drafting legislation to make progress on reform.

Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said he would not comment specifically on the Chamber ad. The senator, he said, prefers a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, sponsoring four bills.

"He's not a supporter of comprehensive reform," Phillips said. "He doesn't think it will work or that it's even possible."

Email: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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