People understand that a broken immigration system is bad for business, bad for our economy and bad for families. —Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams
SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are ready to support a bipartisan immigration bill according to a new poll released Thursday, indicating an overwhelming majority says now is the time to take steps toward immigration reform.
The survey, sponsored by the Alliance for Citizenship, Partnership for a New American Economy and Republicans for Immigration Reform, questioned 525 Utahns; 90 percent of respondents said it is important leaders fix the immigration system in the U.S. this year. And 64 percent of Utahns said they are more likely to vote for an elected official who votes for the bill.
The poll, conducted by Harper Polling, revealed that 71 percent of respondents said they somewhat or strongly supported the bipartisan immigration bill while only 18 percent opposed it and 11 percent said they were not sure.
The poll, taken from June 6-7, described the bill as securing borders, blocking employers from hiring immigrants in the U.S. without legal documentation, ensuring those who are in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status and providing eligibility for a pathway to citizenship "if a long list of requirements is met over more than a decade."
That description is what irks Sen. Mike Lee, who says he supports immigration reform but not the current bill put forward by the so-called Gang of Eight senators.
"I would like to support a bill or a series of bills that do the things described in the poll, too," Lee said. "Unfortunately, the description of the legislation in the poll does not accurately reflect the reality of the Gang of Eight bill being debated in the Senate."
Lee's press secretary, Emily Bennion, said the bill requires a plan for securing the border but weakens the current E-Verify law and allows immigrants to apply for documentation even if they have serious crimes on their record.
She said "huge holes" have been poked in provisions of the bill dealing with paying penalties, learning English and paying back taxes.
The poll results show 74 percent of Utahns said they would support an immigration reform plan that required people living in the U.S. illegally to pay a penalty, learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay taxes and wait at least 13 years before they are eligible for citizenship.
The poll was released a day after a meeting among business, religious, government, law enforcement and community leaders discussing bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform and five days after the poll's sponsor and other local business leaders ran an advertisement urging Utah's senators and representatives to push for immigration reform.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said progress is being made on the bill but several Republicans are stopping almost all amendments, which he says is a mistake.
"I want to see this bill succeed but I still want to see them do a little more work on it," Hatch said Thursday.
He said the amendments he's bringing forward ensure those in the country illegally are not awarded special privileges or benefits that regular citizens aren't given.
Hatch said the skilled worker visa met the quota in one week this year, showing the need for a higher number of visas.
"It's very important that we're able to keep these people that we've worked to get Ph.D., master's degrees and computer programming degrees," he said. "(We want to) keep them here so that we can benefit from their talents."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the poll reflects what he has heard from Utahns.
"People understand that a broken immigration system is bad for business, bad for our economy and bad for families," he said.
McAdams said the Gang of Eight proposal is a starting point for immigration reform and said Hatch's actions to work through concerns are encouraging.
"I'm disappointed with Senator Lee's lack of constructive input," McAdams said. "We need to be coming to this conversation not necessarily with blanket support but with recognition that the system is broken."
He said the Utah Compact was a "watershed moment" in the immigration reform discussion to find a bipartisan solution.
"Attitudes in Utah changed and we recognize that a broken immigration system is harmful to Utah families and harmful to our economy," McAdams said. "So a broken immigration system doesn't just impact immigrants it affects all Utahns."
Tim Wheelwright, immigration attorney, said now is a critical time to bring about immigration reform to help the economy and those directly affected and he was happy with Hatch's approach.
"He has rolled up his shirt sleeves and dove into the issue and said, 'How can we make this bill better?,'" Wheelwright said.
Wheelwright said the Gang of Eight bill doesn't make the path to citizenship easier for immigrants.
"I don't think it's amnesty," he said. "This is a tough but fair pathway to permanent residency and eventually citizenship."
Hatch said if they wait for the "perfect bill" and miss the opportunity now "it'll be another ten years and we'll have another ten or twelve million people in our country that really shouldn't be here," he said. "We have to face the problem now. I'm willing to face it."
Contributing: Rich Piatt