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Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News
Jon Huntsman Jr. is interviewed in Salt Lake City on Friday.

SALT LAKE CITY — A conservative Utah think tank is defending the state's controversial new guest worker program, just days before delegates to the state GOP convention are set to vote on a resolution calling for its repeal.

The Sutherland Institute has issued a six-page report intended to "clear away the misinformation about HB116," the bill passed by the 2011 Legislature that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply to work legally in Utah.

A summary of the report states that what's at stake with the repeal effort is no less than "Utah's chance to wisely and fairly deal with the presence of undocumented immigrants in our state."

HB116, billed as a key component to the "Utah solution" to illegal immigration, is seen by critics as violating the U.S. Constitution and encouraging illegal workers to move to the state.

But the institute says in the report that the law, set to take effect in 2013 or sooner if a federal waiver is granted, "is a perfect example of a sovereign state exercising its right to ensure public safety, protect freedoms and promote its economic prosperity."

And the guest worker program will not entice illegal immigrants to come to the state, the institute says, because HB116 "is not a 'get-out-of-jail-free card.'" Instead, the law requires participants in the program to admit they're here illegally, submit to a criminal background check and pay fines.

Other arguments cited by backers of the repeal effort on the website repeal116.com, include that the law favors hiring illegal immigrants over citizens. Not so, the institute says.

"The reality is that this entire debate would be largely irrelevant if American workers would do the sort of work that immigrants do," according to the institute.

Earlier this month, the institute had come out in favor of replacing HB116 with a failed guest worker bill proposed last session by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake.

Her bill, which was killed by the Republican majority in the Legislature in favor of their own immigration reform package, would have required undocumented immigrants to register for an "accountability card."

The institute's defense of HB116 is among the latest efforts to influence delegates to Saturday's state Republican Party Convention at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy.

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