SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utahns support the state's guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants — and most don't want delegates to Saturday's state GOP convention to call for its repeal.
That's according to a new poll by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News/KSL-TV, which found 61 percent of Utahns now favor the guest-worker bill passed by the 2011 Legislature, up from 56 percent in March.
Only 38 percent of the Utahns polled said delegates to the state Republican Party convention should pass a nonbinding resolution asking lawmakers to repeal that bill, HB116.
Over half of those polled, 53 percent, said they oppose repealing the guest-worker program even when told opponents believe it amounts to amnesty for those in the country illegally.
The poll of 406 registered voters statewide was conducted June 13-15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The issue has divided the state's Republicans, who meet in their annual convention Saturday at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy to deal with a number of off-election year issues that include leadership elections, as well as rule changes and resolutions, including one calling for the repeal of HB116.
Last week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement of support for "an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship."
Delegates have been lobbied on both sides of the issue through websites, videos and emails. The Salt Lake Chamber and the Sutherland Institute are calling HB116 "a conservative, Utah solution" while Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Provo, is warning that "the cultural and economic future of our state are at stake" if it is not repealed.
"This is a battle," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, acknowledged as the architect of HB116, which passed the Republican-controlled Legislature and was signed by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
Bramble, a delegate, said those behind the resolution calling for the repeal are frustrated and angry that the federal government hasn't dealt with illegal immigration and are looking for someone to "strike out against."
He said the poll results aren't surprising.
"There comes a tipping point where the citizens of the state of Utah say, 'We have to do something,'" Bramble said. "Citizens are awakening to the notion that if the federal government doesn't address this situation, it will fall to the states."
HB116, Bramble said, isn't amnesty. It imposes a fine of $2,500 on participants in the guest-worker program, set to take effect in 2013 or sooner if a federal waiver is granted, and requires a criminal background check.
"Amnesty would just be, 'OK, they're here, fine, turn the other cheek and they walk,'" he said. "This is anything but."
Another delegate, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said the poll results would be different if Utahns knew as much about the guest-worker program as the delegates opposed to it do.
"Delegates tend to be more educated," Herrod said, "When you actually tell the truth about illegal immigration in this state, those numbers change. That's why there's so little trust of the mainstream media."
He said the debate has been manipulated.
"Basically, with this resolution, you have housewives taking on the establishment," Herrod said. "Utahns are tired of being called racist, unchristian and anti-immigrant simply because they believe it's wrong" to favor illegal immigrants over those waiting to enter the country legally.
Brandon Beckham, one of the drafters of the repeal resolution and a candidate for state GOP vice chairman, predicted the resolution would be approved.
"Once people are educated on the bill, they see that it needs to be repealed," he said. "I don't think most Utahns support amnesty, and I don't think most Utahns want a bill that's unconstitutional."
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said support is growing for HB116 in the poll because Utahns are doing just that, learning about the effects of a guest-worker program.
"People are willing to put emotions aside and focus on the more pragmatic pieces," she said. "I think it's more reflective of the fact there's more education on the issue."
Robles, whose own guest-worker bill was set aside by Republicans last session in favor of HB116, said she hopes the poll impacts GOP delegates.
"I think it was an overall reflection of where the state of Utah is," Robles said of the poll results. "The whole idea of delegates is that they represent communities, so hopefully they'll follow those."
Salt Lake Chamber spokesman Marty Carpenter said the business community has "been convinced for quite some time that the majority of Utah voters support this type of approach to immigration reform, a guest-worker program. The question becomes, will the delegates reflect the opinions of their caucuses."
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