SALT LAKE CITY — Former state GOP Chairman Stan Lockhart said Tuesday it's time for Republicans in Congress to pay attention to their moral obligation to enact immigration reform.
Lockhart and eight other Utahns are among more than 100 Republican donors, including Karl Rove and former Vice President Dan Quayle, who signed a letter sent Tuesday to GOP members of Congress, urging action on immigration.
"There is a moral obligation we have as a society, let alone as a Republican Party," Lockhart said. "We have a moral obligation to secure God-given rights of freedom and liberty to all people. It's not a political issue. It's a moral issue."
The husband of Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Republicans in Congress should be making decisions based on party principles, not because of "strident, loud voices that aren't reasonable and rational."
The letter states: "Republicans ought to be welcoming immigrants and be seen as doing so. We firmly believe that with meaningful action on immigration reform, there is opportunity for both good policy and good politics for Republicans."
It stops short of endorsing specific legislation, but calls for "a path to legal status" for immigrants in the country illegally, securing the nation's borders and providing a way for U.S. companies to hire the workers they need.
Although the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June, leaders of the GOP majority in the House have made it clear the Senate bill won't be considered.
"I think everybody understands immigration is broken. That's not news," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said. "It's a terribly complex and emotional issue. If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago."
Chaffetz said he's not will to support what he called "a special pathway" to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. "I feel a higher moral obligation to those people who aren't willing to break the law," he said.
House Republicans should get credit for making progress, Chaffetz said, by dealing with some individual pieces of legislation on immigration rather than the Senate bill.
"It's too easy to point fingers," he said.
Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said there may be more momentum toward passing immigration reform this year. "Obviously, there's a long way to go," he said.
Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, said he signed the letter because he's no longer optimistic that immigration reform might finally pass Congress. Now, he said, he's frustrated.
"Unfortunately, we have so many people in Congress who are too concerned about their own skin and what's going to happen in their own elections they're not willing to step forward," Ivory said.
Another Utah Republican who signed the letter, Val Hale, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, said GOP members of Congress fear a backlash from conservative voters who oppose immigration reform.
"The irony to me is right now, I think the whole immigration thing is hurting the Republican Party," Hale said, citing the lack of support from Hispanic voters as contributing to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's loss last year.
The Republican Party must "get away from the status quo," Hale said. "They need to figure out what they can do to get that group back. And opposing immigration reform is not the way to do it."
Romney's campaign finance director, Spencer Zwick, said he signed the letter to tell GOP candidates that key donors are willing to back candidates who share the understanding that "immigration is a key part of job creation."
"It's not meant to be a threat letter," said Zwick, who has worked with Romney since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "The message from this letter ought to be, 'Be bold'....take a stance on immigration."
Zwick said a President Romney would be listening to the concerns raised in the letter. He said the business leaders who attended Romney's Deer Valley retreat earlier this summer talked about the need for more skilled worker visas.
The GOP, Zwick said, has "to take off the table from a party standpoint that there are sacred cows we are unable to talk about." He said the letter could be seen as part of the effort underway to help reshape the party before the next election.
"I think this certainly becomes part of that," Zwick said, noting there are plenty of Republicans who will agree with the stands in the immigration letter "if you talk to them quietly."