SALT LAKE CITY — As Tim Wheelwright landed in Washington, D.C., in anticipation of talking immigration reform with Utah's congressional delegation, he felt a wave of urgency.
"I feel passionate about this, and not just because I'm an immigration lawyer and I see the dysfunction of a broken immigration system every day, but because I see the importance of immigration for our economic future," said Wheelwright of the Durham, Jones and Pinegar law firm.
Wheelwright is part of an 11-person contingent representing Utah businesses, community groups and faiths that will descend on the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday urging Congress to return focus to the immigration debate in the interest of job creation and economic stability.
One by one they will sit down with Utah's four congressmen, asking them to take action. As of Monday night, no meetings had been scheduled with Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee.
"We strongly believe that the Utah delegation has the opportunity to be a leader in calling for those immigration reform proposals," Wheelwright said, commenting on House Speaker John Boehner's apparent reluctance to act. "We don't want to continue just kicking the can down the road. We want to get it done and taken care of. We want meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform."
The group includes Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation; Jason Mathis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber and executive director of the Salt Lake Downtown Alliance; former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff; and Jesus Loya, director of the Park City Angel investor network.
They are joining similar groups from around the country for the event which has united more than 600 advocates in a push they are calling "Americans for Reform: Immigration Reform for our Economy, Faith and Security."
The economic merit for immigration reform extends from low-level agriculture jobs and work visas all the way to specialized, technical posts, said Wheelwright, who earlier this year made a similar plea to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, alongside a group of local business leaders.
In a statement issued Monday, the group outlined key principles it hopes to see included in comprehensive immigration reform, such as increasing access to high-skill and low-skill worker visas, incorporating an employer E-Verify system, making border security a centerpiece of legislation, and deciding what to do with immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Wheelwright sees the group's message to Utah's delegation as two-tiered — a vote on immigration needs to be taken to the House floor, and Utahns want it to happen now.
Progress toward comprehensive immigration reform, including proposed legislation from the Senate that essentially died on the House floor, showed significant movement earlier this year but stalled in the wake of headline-grabbing issues like the government shutdown and default drama.
As they prepared for Tuesday's meeting, members of the Utah group were "cautiously optimistic" that Congress will pass some degree of immigration reform before the year is out, Wheelwright said. But the reality is that the debate will likely roll over into next year as the country moves toward the 2014 midterm elections.
For Parker, immigration reform is vital to Utah farmers and ranchers.
"U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to agriculture and the U.S. economy," Parker said in a statement Monday, calling for a flexible agricultural labor program. "Without it, Utah will continue to see fruit rot in the fields and livestock ranchers struggle to tend their herds."
Likewise, Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, said immigration reform will open manufacturing jobs and keep work in the U.S. And Donna Milakovic, executive vice president of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, called it essential for Utah businesses hoping to compete in a global market.
At the heart of it all lies the question that Wheelwright sees as the largest hurdle facing immigration reform: What will be done with the country's undocumented population?
"There's got to be somewhere in between those two positions that would be a meaningful compromise," said Wheelwright, referring to the debate between advocates supporting a path to citizenship and those who don't want to reward illegal actions. "That's the discussion that really needs to take place so that we can solve that problem that keeps staring us in the face that we just keep postponing."
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