SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff joined evangelical Christian leaders in applauding the Obama administration's new deportation policy and blasting the tea party's hard line on illegal immigration issues.

"Our resources are not best used in this country either nationally, on a statewide level or a local level to go after those who are otherwise law-abiding citizens," Shurtleff said Tuesday during a National Immigration Forum telephonic news conference.

The Republican attorney general called the tea party's approach to illegal immigration — round people up and ship them home — unrealistic, unworkable and damaging to the GOP.

"It pains me that the tea party has too much of a voice in turning people to the irrational and the shrill," he said.

Shurtleff joined the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, and Jenny Yang, advocacy and policy director for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, for the panel discussion.

The Obama administration announced last week it will allow many illegal immigrants facing deportation the chance to remain in the country and apply for a work permit. Meantime, it directed immigration authorities to focus their efforts on deporting criminals who threaten public safety and national security.

Rodriguez called the policy shift an "American and, at the heart of the matter, a Christian decision" to protect the innocent, especially the young. "Anything that protects the innocent according to scripture truly reflects the heart of God," he said.

Yang called it "welcome news" for many evangelical churches, which she said are often left to pick up the pieces when deportation rips families apart.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not commented on the White House announcement. But in past public statements has said that forced separation of parents from their children weakens families and damages society.

The church also said it supports reform that would allow those who are now here illegally to work legally, provide for their families and become better contributing members of the community without establishing a path to citizenship or granting amnesty.

Tea party members have called the new Obama administration directive amnesty. Rodriguez, who said he does not support the idea of amnesty, disagrees. "This is not, as some have labeled it, backdoor amnesty," he said.

Shurtleff said he is dismayed to see many of his fellow Republicans adopt the tea party stance on the revised deportation policy and immigration reform in general.

"It pains me to see so many of my party make it political and not understand this is a public safety concept," he said. "It is damaging in the point that they are pandering to the tea party."

Rodriguez said the what the tea party needs is diversity.

"The problem with the tea party is that it's missing some chips and salsa. It needs some chips and salsa," he said.

Both he and Shurtleff said it's time to put politics aside and work on real immigration reform.

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