Republicans at an immigration summit Wednesday in Salt Lake City said that a continuation of harsh rhetoric on the polarizing issue notably among GOP presidential hopefuls will cost the party the White House in 2012 and possibly beyond.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff took it even a step further.
"The party has lost those [Latino] voters," Shurtleff said. "They aren't in danger we've lost them."
The comments came on the heels of remarks made by Paul Bridges, the mayor of Uvalda, Ga. A conservative Republican who is an outspoken critic of his state's enforcement-only immigration law currently being challenged in court, he called it "absolutely anti-Christ-like in attitude."
Bridges said the tone and ideas being brought forth on the issue longer fences, more troops on the border has troubled him. He also said that, if he were Latino, he couldn't back the Republican Party with its current tone.
"From my standpoint, I don't think I could support any party that has spoken so harshly against my relatives and the ones I love."
Bridges was a key figure in Shurtleff's first-ever Mountain West Summit at the Marriott City Center Hotel. The summit featured faith leaders, politicians, immigrants' rights advocates and law enforcement leaders discussing the issue on a series of panels and was attended by about 200 people.
Shurtleff said he wanted to host the summit with groups from around the country to highlight approaches to addressing immigration reform beyond tough, Arizona-style enforcement-only laws. He also said it was a way to frame the upcoming anniversary of The Utah Compact, a document signed by Shurtleff, leaders in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and faith-based groups in the state, including Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Church. The Salt Lake City-based Mormon church did not sign, but endorsed, the Utah Compact.
That document, Shurtleff said, is being looked at as a model for other states and he hoped it would change the dialogue on the issue in states like Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
"Don't go backwards on this issue," he said. "Continue to be an example and invite neighboring states to pass laws similar to ours."
The law he was talking about is HB116, Utah's attempt at trying to normalize the status for the states' existing undocumented population. Signed in March by Gov. Gary Herbert, the law would allow undocumented immigrants working in the state to be granted guest worker status after getting a background check and paying a fine. However, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Provo, is looking at making changes to that law, which is scheduled to take effect in 2013.
Opponents of HB116, however, argue it's unconstitutional and Arturo Morales-Llan has been a leader in attempting to repeal it.
He said the conference was a one-sided affair that was simply trying to cater to the Latino vote at the expense of the party base.
"Shurtleff's conference is conveniently timed to advance [President Barack] Obama's amnesty agenda and the HB116 guest worker law," Morales-LLan said. "It legalizes tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in the State of Utah and advances amnesty efforts nationwide."
But panelists balked at calling their proposals amnesty instead citing the cost burden of trying to deport the nation's estimated 11 million people already in the country illegally.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said "you cannot in any way shape or form deport" 11 million people.
He also suggested people stop voting for politicians who adhere to that viewpoint.
"How do you influence an elected official?" he said. "You don't vote for them plain and simple."
Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute think tank, said the Republican presidential candidates need to tone the rhetoric down, otherwise Burbank's suggestion would come to fruition.
He said one of the GOP front-runners, Mitt Romney, needs to be especially cautious.
"If Romney doesn't change his tune, he will lose what should be a sure thing," Mero said.
The summit also featured panelists most affected by enforcement-only immigration laws.
David Petracco, a Colorado-based farmer, said he's been unable to fill jobs and that has left him with rotting crops sitting unharvested.
"A person has to be willing, able and qualified to do the job," Petracco said. "We have had a great difficulty fulfilling that this year."
Bridges had a warning for Utah, which may be looking at tough immigration laws in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.
"I promise you ... the fields [in Georgia] are being scorched and you guys have the opportunity to avoid that in your state," he said.
This document, signed by thousands of Utahns, including political, business and religious leaders is a statement of principles on immigration reform. It supports the concept of immigration as a federal issue; endorses a humane approach that keeps families intact; recognizes the value of immigrants as workers and taxpayers; and encourages local police to focus on enforcing criminal laws, not civil immigration violations.