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Election hastens urgency for immigration reform, Chamber panelists say

Published: Friday, Nov. 9 2012 6:24 p.m. MST

Attorney General Shurtleff discusses U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona immigration law and the potential impact on Utah's immigration laws, Monday, June 25, 2012.

Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The morning after Election Day, the nation woke up to a different sensibility about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Even conservative talk show host Sean Hannity has come around on the issue, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said during a panel discussion on the economic impacts of immigration Friday at the Salt Lake Chamber. 

"He's 'evolving' on immigration," Shurtleff said.

Judging by the remarks of other panel members, Hannity is not alone.

The national Republican Party is taking stock of its position on immigration and how it can better appeal to Latino voters.

"Everyone knows Republicans didn't do so well with different minority groups in this country," said Stan Lockhart, a former chairman of the Utah Republican Party and spokesman for Micron Technology.

Part of the problem is the messaging, he said, because the Republican Party platform and Latinos share many of the same family and social values.

"The message is all wrong right now. Whatever the message is, it's not working right now," Lockhart said.

Aside from politics, the nation's business interests need to demand that Congress makes immigration reform a top priority. The timing is right, said Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock.com. 

"Sometimes, you can't pick the fruit until it's ripe," Johnson said.

Overstock.com, which started with 18 employees in 1999, now employs more than 1,300 people and had $1 billion in sales last year.

"That is largely because the developers we've been able to hire," Johnson said, noting the company has great demand for college graduates who earn degrees in math, technology, engineering and statistics.

But international workers constantly fret about their immigration status because of complications and delays in processing documents.

"One of the things that hangs over my employees is, 'What is going to happen with my visa?'" Johnson said.

Immigration laws

Efforts to expand American businesses are also frustrated by immigration laws that allow international students to study at American colleges and universities yet require them to go home once they graduate. If they could work in the United States, the nation could benefit from their innovation and resulting job growth, Lockhart said.

"We're essentially creating jobs outside our country with the current policies we have," he said.

Immigration reform must also enable children of undocumented parents who were born in the United States or brought to the country by their parents to work legally once they graduate from college. 

Shurtleff said the high school "dreamers" he has met over the years "love this country."

"They tell me, 'This is our country. It's all we know. We've been blessed and we want to give back,'" he said.

Jeremy Robbins, a policy adviser and special counsel to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the nation's shifting demographics mean immigrant labor is needed in all segments of the workforce.

Americans are having fewer children, and an estimated 10,000 baby boomers retire each day, Robbins said.

"That's a big number, and it's a scary number," he said.

To continue to thrive and meet the service needs of a large group of retirees, the nation needs immigrants who can contribute to the labor force, Robbins said. The nation could take a lesson from New York City, where nearly half of all small businesses are owned by immigrants.

"For us, it's not a cause for concern as you might hear about in the national debate," he said. "We consider it a strength."

The Utah Compact

Friday was the second anniversary of the signing of the Utah Compact, a declaration of five principles intended to guide the state's conversation about immigration: federal solutions, law enforcement, families, economy and a free society.

Lane Beattie, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he believes the document was a game changer in Utah's policymaking.

"Fourteen different states literally took the Utah Compact and adopted its principles," Beattie said. 

"What an incredible experience it's been to be involved in something that has made such a substantial difference not only in Utah, but throughout the United States," he said.

Given the high stakes for the economy, families and human potential, the Salt Lake Chamber considers immigration reform a top priority.

"I want you to know the Salt Lake Chamber will never back down from these issues," Beattie said. "Never."

Robbins said Utah has been in a national leader with its principled approach in calling for immigration reform.

"You want to continue what you're doing (but) louder," he said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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