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Lee rules out ‘amnesty’ as he works on immigration-reform team

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"We are going to grant amnesty" • State Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, one of Utah’s most outspoken voices against offering citizenship to illegal immigrants, said he couldn’t envision any deal negotiated by the Senate working group that he could back, or that Lee could support for that matter.

"I already know what is going to happen. We are going to grant amnesty," said Herrod, who predicts that it would create another cycle of illegal immigration in the next decade.

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The state lawmaker worries that Republicans are overreacting to the 2012 election, where more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported President Barack Obama. Some, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it’s time to push immigration reform as an outreach to Hispanics, but Herrod contends that most of those voters are out of reach for GOP candidates, because they tend to support Democratic views on health care and the social safety net.

"I’m just afraid Republicans are so concerned in D.C. that they are ready to throw out their principles," he said.

Herrod’s glad to have someone like Lee in the negotiations to represent his views, though he’s a little wary.

"I have supported Mike’s stance in the past and I would hope he would keep to his position," he said.

For his part, Lee said he isn’t changing his immigration stances, and he dismisses Herrod’s conclusion that any deal would include citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

"I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion at all and my colleagues know I’m not interested in amnesty," Lee said. "The same principles that I applied in my campaign are going to be the principles that I still hold. But again, going into these discussions, I want to be able to evaluate both the legal status quo and what needs to change."

Immigration was a major issue in Lee’s 2010 Senate campaign, with much of the attention going to his opposition to birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Expanding visas • Since joining the Senate, Lee has not pushed that issue, but he has signed on to a trio of immigration bills, with the biggest attention grabber being one he sponsored with Schumer.

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Their bill would allow wealthy foreigners to gain a three-year visa if they invested at least $500,000 in residential real estate and lived in the home at least six months out of the year. Schumer and Lee argued their proposal would boost a struggling housing market, while reducing barriers to primarily Canadian and Chinese visitors.

Lee also pushed a bill that would allow guest workers to stay on dairy and sheep farms for three years, extending their visas, and he carried a proposal first pushed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in the House, that would distribute visas unused by countries to those with a long waiting list.

Groups such as the Salt Lake Chamber have been pressuring Chaffetz, Lee and the state’s other members of Congress to lead out on immigration, particularly after the state Legislature passed a slate of bills in 2011 involving enforcement of immigration laws and a guest-worker program. The enforcement bill is now tied up in court and the state hasn’t set up the guest-worker program.

Natalie Gochnour, the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, met with Schumer, Menendez, Lee and others last week to advocate for a major immigration bill.

In those meetings, Gochnour heard about the "scars" and "bruises" from the failed immigration reform bid of 2007 and said having fresh faces, like Lee, in the debate is important.

"He represents new leadership that wasn’t a part of the breakdown that occurred last time," she said.

Gochnour added that the chamber, which supports a path to citizenship, has had a "steady dialogue" with Lee and his staff about immigration, and while she recognizes his strong stance, believes he is approaching this process with an open mind.

Lee told The Tribune that he would seek some creative solutions to the emotionally charged issue, keeping in mind that this nation was built and sustained by people from foreign lands.

"I hope we continue to be a country of immigrants," Lee said. "We want immigrants to continue to come. We want them to come through the front door."


Twitter: @mattcanham

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