SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who have been pushing for federal immigration reform expressed optimism Monday over what appears to be the launch of significant efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
"It’s really exciting. This push for immigration reform has been a long one. I'm so excited it's finally happening," said Itza Hernandez, vice president of the Salt Lake Dream Team, which advocates for undocumented youth on local and federal immigration issues.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators announced a framework of principles to guide lawmaking over border security, guest workers and employer verification of immigration status, among other issues.
President Barack Obama is expected to lay out his vision for comprehensive immigration reform during a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, expressed hope that the effort will bring an end to a "difficult chapter in our nation's history."
“It is my prayer that our nation has come to that point where we can once again change the course of our country for the better by embracing comprehensive immigration reform," Wester said.
"Such reform is needed to keep immigrant families together; continue our economic recovery; provide us with laws that can be respected; and assist those new to our shores who help to make our country great.”
The framework announced by the Senate "is a step in the right direction," said Mark Alvarez, Spanish language talk show host and attorney.
The four pillars of the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform announced Monday are:
• "Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required."
• "Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families."
• "Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers."
• "Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers."
Alvarez said he believes there is a 90 percent-95 percent chance immigration reform legislation will be achieved in 2013.
"It's going to happen. It's just a matter how it will be done," he said.
The compromise announced by the Senate is much like the blueprint a small group of senators produced five years ago, he said. That effort stalled.
But the political landscape is different in 2013, he said. In the November election, Latinos voted for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney 71 percent to 27 percent, reflective of the GOP's hard line against illegal immigration.
That "shellacking," Alvarez said, was particularly instructive for Republicans. However, it is not the only reason comprehensive immigration reform efforts are moving forward, he said.
"A lot of pressure is coming from business interests and they're probably more comfortable in the Republican tent," Alvarez said.
Staff members of the Salt Lake Chamber participated in a conference call with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Monday to discuss the immigration reform framework.
"The principles create 'a workable road map' to lawful status for people of good will who are already here; reform our legal immigration system to strengthen the American economy and American families and create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers," the Chamber said in a statement.
Jason Mathis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said the nation needs hardworking and highly educated workers to enable the American economy to flourish.
“Utah’s business community is encouraged by the reasonable principles outlined today and we will continue to encourage members of Utah’s federal delegation to lead efforts to fix our broken immigration system.”
Lee says no
Even as the Chamber was asking Utah's congressional delegation to be "united in common purpose and work as a team to reform America's broken immigration system," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced he was unable to support the principles for reform developed by the bipartisan Senate group.
“These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country. Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully," Lee said in a statement.
The framework carves out an exception for agricultural workers "that has little justification," he said.
Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake attorney who represents employers on immigration matters, said the success of the reform efforts "will be based upon the details."
The green card provisions of the proposal raise some questions, he said. If undocumented applicants cannot receive green cards until people in line receive theirs, the wait could be at least four years, based on current visa caps, Tsai said.
"What if it's 10 years? What if it's 15 years?" he said.
The Senate agreement dovetails the proposal Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday. National observers say the administration's plan largely mirrors the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' "Principles on Immigration Reform and Our Commitment to the American Dream," which was released in November.
It declares the caucuses' "commitment to the American people to work tirelessly toward common sense, comprehensive immigration reform that serves America's interests, promotes fairness and rule of law and contributes effectively and meaningfully to our economic well-being an recovery."
For the full declaration, visit: http://gutierrez.house.gov/sites/gutierrez.house.gov/files/One%20Nation_Principles%20on%20Immigration%20Reform.pdf.