Lee opposed, Hatch open to immigration compromise
Washington • Utah's senators had far different reactions to the new bipartisan immigration plan, which ties increased border security to a 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, expressed his strong opposition while Sen. Orrin Hatch said: "I want to support it."
Neither senator has had a chance to fully digest the hefty 844-page bill that Senate negotiators introduced at 2 a.m. As members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, they will participate in hearings on the legislation now slated to begin Friday.
Hatch's interest in finding a bipartisan compromise to the vexing immigration problem shouldn't be seen as a blanket endorsement of this particular proposal.
Hatch fought against legislation backed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 that eventually allowed legal status to 3 million immigrants. He was also among the Senate Republicans who torpedoed President George W. Bush's immigration plan in 2007.
But in an interview Wednesday, Hatch told The Salt Lake Tribune: "I believe it is long overdue. We've got to resolve these problems with our neighbors to the south in particular."
He has negotiated with Democrats on a plan to boost the number of migrant agriculture workers and offer a quicker path to citizenship for those working in that sector illegally. He also crafted a compromise to increase the number of visas offered to people with engineering and technology backgrounds.
Both of those pieces are included in the "gang of eight" compromise, backed by four Democrats and four Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Hatch met with Rubio Wednesday morning to talk about the issue.
Legislation • The bill would offer immigrants here illegally a provisional legal status and the right to work within six months of passage as long as they entered the country before Dec. 31, 2011, and paid a fine and back taxes. In 10 years they could apply for permanent resident status and, three years after that, citizenship.
The legislation ties that to "triggers." Before the government offers green cards, it must boost border apprehensions to 90 percent of those trying to cross and develop a reliable nationwide system for employers to check the legal status of applicants.
Hatch complimented President Barack Obama's administration on beefing up border security and he thought the compromise could go a long way to resolving complaints about how easy it is for people to cross undetected.
"I have to say as sad as it is, I think this administration has done a better job on border security than any prior administration," he said.
Lee was an original member of the gang of eight but bowed out early in the process because he couldn't support a path to citizenship. He still can't and he says offering up-front legal status to illegal immigrants could derail the whole effort.
Instead he calls for a piecemeal approach where the country focuses first on implementing border security, modernizing the visa system and creating a new way to track people as they enter and exit the country. Only after these reforms are in place, does Lee believe Congress should consider dealing with the issue of illegal immigration, and the 11 million people who have either entered illegally or overstayed their visas.
"It will be a sharper, clearer path to dealing with the needs of the 11 million," he said.
Lee believes a portion of those immigrants would voluntarily return to their home countries and apply through legal channels if the nation created a quicker path to gaining a green card.
His position is similar to that of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who, like a number of House Republicans, doesn't want to vote on one overarching proposal in large part because they are hesitant to support anything that could be construed as amnesty.
Hatch dismissed the idea of a piecemeal approach, noting the president would reject it.
"We have to deal with the reality here and what is really going to happen," he said. "So the goal is to have this bill be as good as it can possibly be."
Reform supporters • Advocates for reform in Utah, including the Salt Lake Chamber, the Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City and former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, argue this compromise is a good starting point and they rejected calls to break it apart as a "red herring" pushed by opponents of reform.
"We've looked at this for a lot of years. We have concluded the best way to approach this is to combine enforcement policies with human provisions," said Bishop John C. Wester, with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake. "To take one or the other is just not going to work. It is just not going to have the backing of the American people."
This group was involved in the creation of the Utah Compact in 2010, which fought against state-based enforcement legislation in favor of a federal reform. And on Wednesday, they said the time is ripe in part because of the last presidential election, where Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote.
"It has been my party, Republicans and conservatives, who killed this effort last time," Shurtleff said. "We can no longer let those shrill voices be the voices of the Republican Party."
Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie recently blasted Hatch and Lee for signing a letter demanding a lengthy legislative process with numerous hearings, suggesting it might be time to replace them.
Hatch did sign that letter in late March and almost immediately backed away from it, saying even before Beattie's criticisms that what he wants is for the bill to follow normal congressional procedures.
The bill is going through normal procedures. Hearings are slated for Friday and Monday and the committee will debate amendments to the bill throughout May. Lee still considers the process rushed and warned that doing so could lead to unintended consequences.
Beattie took a more conciliatory tone Wednesday, saying he has been in conversation with the senators' staffs and understands they are engaged in the issue. But he also said it's the job of reform supporters to keep the pressure on Utah's congressional delegation, none of whom have supported comprehensive reform.
"This is the time to step forward and help us as a community and certainly as a state to move this thing forward," he said.
But many Republicans in Utah remain unconvinced the nation should support an immigration bill that doesn't require people here illegally to leave before reentering through regular channels.
Former state Rep. Carl Wimmer said he would oppose the compromise and hopes that Utah's federal lawmakers do too.
"For adults who chose to come here illegally and take advantage of the welfare system of this country, I'm not a fan of any time of legal status or pathway to citizenship," he said.