Congress must act now to resolve nation's immigration woes, panel says

Published: Wednesday, April 17 2013 7:25 p.m. MDT

Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City greets Gerado Gomez after speaking at a a Dignity Rally Saturday at the Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake City. The rally was for immigration reform in the wake of Arizona's new law regarding immigrants. Utahns for Immigration Reform hosted the rally.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Business and community leaders on Wednesday urged Utah’s congressional delegation to support immigration reform legislation now before Congress.

“Fixing this nation’s broken immigration system is the federal government’s responsibility and Congress’ job. Now is the time for our congressional leaders to act to solve this problem,” said Jason Mathis, executive director of Salt Lake City's Downtown Alliance.

Mathis made the comments during a teleconference hosted by the Partnership for a New American Economy on the bipartisan bill filed Tuesday in the U.S. Senate. The 844-page bill is intended to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

The proposal, described by Salt Lake immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright as “a heavy lift,” would create a path to citizenship for some 11 million people not authorized to be in the country.

The so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill would also create tens of thousands of new visas for international workers in low-skilled jobs as well as high-tech positions.

The legislative proposal contemplates spending billions on new border control technology and hiring 3,500 additional federal agents.

Youths brought to the country illegally by their parents could apply for green cards in five years and citizenship immediately thereafter, under the proposal.

“It is a major undertaking,” Wheelwright said, “I’m impressed with how much ground they’ve been able to cover.”

Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said anti-immigration and zero-population groups are vigorously campaigning against the compromise bill and targeting the eight senators who crafted the compromise legislation.

“I would ask Americans all over this country to get busy and make your wishes known on this,” Shurtleff said.

He noted that some members of Congress have been critical of the pace at which the legislation is moving through the process. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the legislation on Friday and Monday.

“I heard Sen. (Jeff) Sessions (R-Ala.) say, ‘We’re not even here Friday or Monday.’ With all due respect, senator, be there. That’s your job. This is a time when we need you to get this thing done. We’ll be there. We hope you will, too,” Shurtleff said.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is reaching out to educate Catholics nationwide about the legislation and to encourage their support.

“In ’07, we were outgunned about 10 to 1 in terms of how much our political leaders heard so we’ve got to get the word out,” Bishop Wester said, referring to the last effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws.

The nation's Catholic bishops are "continuing to work with our congresspersons in terms of ensuring reforms, include protections for the immigrant, wages, work conditions, due process, etc.”

Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said the nation is far more receptive to immigration reform than it was in 2007.

“The American people want it. I think after the election of this last year, it became extremely clear that one of the glaring differences between the two-party system was that one party wasn’t addressing it in an open way. … The American people at large said we want this solved. It is time.”

Shurtleff said the shrill rhetoric from far-right conservative lawmakers, interest groups and national talk show hosts killed previous reform efforts. The lack of federal leadership on the issue resulted in “harmful state legislation” such as Arizona’s SB1070, he said.

The outcome of the 2012 general election clearly changed the dynamics of the debate, Shurtleff said.

“Conservatives now understand and Republican officials (too) that we can no longer let those shrill voices be the voice of the Republican Party. And it hurt in this election to have President Obama receive 71 of the Latino vote and 73 percent of the Asian vote, which we're told is clearly tied to this feeling that the Republican Party is out of touch or unconcerned about the rights of minorities in this country. It’s important to step up.”

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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