SPANISH FORK — A movement seeking the repeal of House Bill 116 — the controversial guest worker legislation passed last month by the Utah Legislature — comes to a head Saturday in a Utah County Republican convention with strong leaders on different sides of the issue.
Utah County is in some ways the epicenter of the Beehive State's immigration debate, because the legislative delegation from the area includes state representatives like immigration hawks Steve Sandstrom and Chris Herrod as well as HB116 backers like state Sen. Curt Bramble and the former chairman of the state Republican Party, Stan Lockhart.
The passage of HB116, signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert but in need of a federal waiver and not scheduled to take effect for more than two years, initially elicited an uproar among conservative Republicans. That discontent appeared to be growing April 16 when the delegates at the Salt Lake County Republican convention approved a nonbinding resolution calling for repeal of HB116. For a moment it looked like every county in Utah might follow suit.
However, April 16 might have been the day the repeal movement reached its highest point.
Since then, momentum has swung in favor of 116. In the past two weeks, in short succession, the Republican conventions in Beaver, Box Elder, Davis and Iron counties all voted down resolutions to repeal HB 116. Others didn't consider the issue.
Now another nonbinding resolution calling for the repeal of HB116 will come up for a vote Saturday at the Utah County Republican Party's organizing convention at Maple Mountain High School.
"I believe we are at a crossroads in the Republican Party here in Utah … with the serious issue of immigration," Lockhart wrote in an email sent Thursday to fellow Utah County GOP delegates. "On Saturday, you will be asked to support a resolution to repeal HB116. If we choose to support the resolution, we will be out of step with Davis County, Box Elder County, Beaver County and Iron County Republicans who defeated this resolution. In other county conventions, the resolution didn't even make it onto the agenda. And there is a growing backlash in Salt Lake County where this resolution passed."
One of the major talking points espoused by proponents of an HB116 repeal is the observation that legislating illegal immigration is the federal government's responsibility and not within the scope of any state's jurisdiction. Sen. Stuart Reid (R-Ogden), HB116's sponsor in the state senate, finds a certain measure of hypocrisy in that argument because of where it's coming from.
"I think that observation is fallacious," Reid said. "The same people that are making that observation were pushing the state legislators to pass (harsher immigration) legislation. Now they're saying that the state does not have a role in passing legislation and yet they were up at the legislature pounding away trying to get legislation passed on immigration."
Three days after the Salt Lake County Republican convention called for repeal, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (newsroom.lds.org/article/immigration-response) reiterated its position on HB116: "The church appreciates the package of bills that the (Utah) Legislature had passed, including House Bill 116. … The position of the church regarding immigration reform (includes) measures that will allow those who are now here illegally to work legally."
"Is the Utah County Republican Party going down the wrong road on this resolution opposing HB116?" Lockhart said. "There has been a great deal of misunderstanding and frankly misinformation about the position of the LDS Church regarding HB116. From my perspective, it's clear."
Proponents of the repeal movement disagree.
Dave Duncan still unequivocally believes HB116 ought to be repealed even after reading the LDS Church's April 19 statement. A member of the Utah County Republican Party's executive committee, Duncan is also a candidate for the party's chairmanship.
"I have a son on an LDS mission in a foreign country, and I understand that the church is in a delicate situation especially with Mexico," Duncan said. "We have so many missionaries (in Mexico) that the Church has to be perceived as being not racist and not anti-Mexico in particular and being tolerant and compassionate.
"There's plenty of evidence to show that the Mexican president has been putting pressure on the church, so I understand their position. But I have received no direct direction from the church as an officer in the Republican Party to take any particular stance on HB116."
A lot may be riding on Saturday's vote. In the event the Utah County GOP handily approves the resolution on Saturday calling for HB116 to be overturned, Lockhart foresees a similar resolution coming before the state Republican Party later this year. He contends that such a scenario could alter the future of Republican politics in Utah by placing the slew of Beehive State Republicans who belong to the LDS Church in a potentially untenable position similar to what LDS Democrats faced in the 1970s, when the Democratic Party began embracing "the feminist, hippie movement."
Even if HB116 remains on the books — it doesn't become enforceable law until 2013 — its supporters ultimately view the bill as a stopgap until the federal government acts to corral illegal immigration.
"Most of us involved with (HB116's) passage anticipated there would be critics of the legislation both on a local and on a national level," Reid said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's all part of the debate, and the debate will continue to rage in each one of the states until Congress begins to do their job and passes national legislation to resolve all of the issues surrounding immigration.
"Those people who are criticizing HB116 are misplacing their efforts; their energy should be directed at the Congressional delegation and all of Congress to do their job, to do their duty and create an immigration policy for this nation."
Marjorie Cortez contributed to this article.