Washington • A Utah-born, common-ground approach to fixing America's broken immigration system was part of a White House discussion Tuesday and may serve as a model in moving the dicey debate forward.
John Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and an architect of the Utah Compact, was one of the leaders invited to the meeting that included President Barack Obama and a bevy of Cabinet heads.
Wester said people in the room Tuesday seemed intrigued by how Utah is trying to tackle the immigration issue as compared with Arizona, which enacted a hard-line, law enforcement-only law last year. The Utah Compact is a set of ideals stressing humane treatment of undocumented residents and the need for a federal solution. It was endorsed by a broad range of Utah religious, business and community leaders.
"There seemed to be interest in the room when the Utah Compact came up," Wester said. "There was interest in what did Utah do and how can we follow it? People see the benefit of having principles laid out that kind of form a template that any possible laws would follow."
The Utah Compact, in addition to calling for a federal-based, humane solution to immigration, says local law enforcement should focus on crime, not civil laws; expresses a desire to keep families together; and recognizes the economic contributions of immigrants.
Supporters of the compact are hoping to build an American Compact along the same lines.
Obama, who addressed the group Tuesday, stressed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform that not only strengthens America's borders, but also restores accountability in the system, according to the White House. Perpetuating the broken system isn't an option, Obama added.
Immigration reform has largely stalled in Congress for the past several years, and with a divided government Republicans control the House and Democrats dominate the Senate finding a workable solution might prove difficult.
Obama said three times that reforming the immigration system was an "urgent" mission and that he wanted to get the ball rolling this year, Wester said.
"He truly understands the issues. He knows, on the ground, people are suffering citizens and immigrants alike the whole country is suffering because of a broken system," Wester said. "So he's committed his administration to do something about it. He wants to not just wring his hands about it, but actually do something about it."
While Wester was one of the original backers of the Utah Compact, he has been critical of the package of immigration bills passed by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert this year. Referred to by supporters as the "Utah solution," that package includes HB116, which proposes to create a guest-worker program in the state; HB497, which is an immigration-enforcement bill watered down from an original Arizona-style version; and HB469, which would allow Utah citizens to sponsor immigrants for work or study in the state.
Wester has said the measures are unconstitutional because they attempt to transfer responsibilities and powers of the federal government to the state, and he has criticized them for being likely to drive undocumented immigrants "further into the shadows."
"As was stated very clearly in the Utah Compact, signed by numerous local businesses, religious leaders and thousands of community members, immigration is a federal issue," Wester wrote recently in the Intermountain Catholic.
One of Obama's Cabinet members seemed very interested in the Utah Compact, Wester said: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Latino and former U.S. senator from Colorado. Wester said Salazar wants to come to Utah to learn more about the state's approach.
Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said that he's not surprised the White House would welcome something such as the Utah Compact, which he adds doesn't mention illegal immigration, or its impact on identity theft.
"What concerns me is that they might want to take this and use this as a disingenuous way to say, 'We love immigrants,' when they only want to make illegal immigrants legal," says Mortensen, a retired foreign-service officer.
He adds that the Utah Compact is really an effort by businesses to secure a low-cost labor pool bolstered by undocumented immigrants.
White House meeting on immigration
Administration officials attending included:
Eric Holder • Attorney General,
Ken Salazar • Interior Secretary
Hilda Solis • Labor Secretary
Janet Napolitano • Homeland Security Secretary
Leith Anderson • President of the National Association of Evangelicals
Michael Bloomberg • New York City Mayor
John Engler, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable
Eric Garcetti •President of the Los Angeles City Council
John Podesta • CEO of the Center for American Progress
Charles Ramsey • President of the Major City Chiefs of Police Association
Al Sharpton • President of the National Action Network
Arnold Schwarzenegger • Former governor of California
Richard Trumka • AFL-CIO leader
John C. Wester • Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City