BRIGHAM CITY — Representatives of the northern Utah business community expressed frustration Monday to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, about the impact of partisan politics on federal immigration reform.
"It should not be a partisan issue," said Tim Wheelwright, speaking on behalf of the Ogden/Weber and Davis chambers. He said the differences between Republicans and Democrats need to be set aside for the "economic prosperity" of the country.
"That's what for business, I think, gets so frustrating is to see the partisanship that just pervades Washington and is really holding this up right now," said Wheelwright, a Salt Lake-based immigration attorney.
Bishop, who met with the group in his Main Street office near the city's archway sign, stopped Wheelwright after he claimed that the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill could pass in the House if leaders allowed a vote.
"Let me interrupt you because you're not helping your point," Bishop said. "The bottom line is, partisanship does play a role but not what people think it does. There are not votes in the House to pass the Senate bill."
First elected to Congress in 2002, Bishop said the split in Congress "is really not Republican versus Democrat. It's House versus Senate. It is a chamber issue. It's not a political issue."
He said the bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate "is really a bad bill. It should not be passed under any condition. Either do it right or you don't do it at all."
The GOP-controlled House, Bishop said, is attempting to individually tackle the major immigration issues, including border control and establishing a pathway to citizenship or legalization for immigrants living in the country illegally.
Jim Smith, president of the Davis Chamber, said the jockeying between the House and the Senate is equally frustrating. "We've got to get over that," Smith said. "Effectively, nobody is talking to anybody."
Warning that the debate is becoming ever more shrill, Smith asked the congressman what the business community can do to help make progress on the issue of dealing with immigrants in the country illegally.
"You want me to be painfully honest? There's nothing you can do," Bishop said. He also said he saw the tone of the immigration debate in Washington differently, especially after years of refusing to even discuss the issue.
"I don't hear the language as more shrill at all. I hear the language as more accommodating than ever before," Bishop said. "You hear that more as a media point of view than it is reality."
Border security has to be dealt with first, Bishop said, to create momentum to deal with the tougher issues. He said the focus needs to be on granting access to patrols on environmentally sensitive federal land, not building a bigger fence.
"There is a still a great deal of anger and anxiety out there," Bishop said, about not only the workers but also the drug dealers, criminal cartels and human traffickers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Addressing what he called the porous border will soothe that anger and anxiety, said Bishop, the sponsor of legislation opening up the protected lands to patrols. "That's why that piece is so significant."
Wheelwright asked whether it was practical to expect the House and the Senate to find solutions one bill at a time, especially when it comes to the "elephant in the room," providing for immigrants in the country illegally to stay.
Bishop said there are not members of Congress who simply hate immigrants. "Maybe in society there are, but in the halls of Congress, you're dealing with a different issue," he said.
That issue, he said, is the philosophical difference between the House and the Senate majorities over the need for debt reduction. Immigration reform, he said, is a "tactical, mechanical" difference.
Still, Bishop warned, immigration reform will take time. But he said the 2014 mid-term elections in Congress won't make the issue more toxic politically, even though both parties are fighting for control.
The chances of passing a series of reforms will "be decent. It's not going to be more political in 2014 than it is now," Bishop said, noting Congress will return from summer recess next month.
Bishop said he was not certain what the House bill dealing with immigrants already in the country illegally would look like or what he would be willing to support.
Other legislation, like making more visas available to technical workers, should be easier to get passed, he said, while it may be more difficult to come up with an acceptable way to accommodate the children of immigrants here illegally.
After the hourlong meeting, Wheelwright said sitting down with Bishop was an opportunity to remind the congressman that his constituents are concerned about more than border security when it comes to immigration reform.
He said the business community will continue to push for immigration reform. "I remain cautiously optimistic," Wheelwright said.
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