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Hatch: Immigration reform can’t wait

First Published Apr 28 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 29 2013 12:21 pm

Washington » Sen. Orrin Hatch says now is the time to reform the immigration system for the economy, for his Mormon faith and for the people here illegally.

Utah’s senior GOP senator sees the bipartisan Senate proposal as a solid starting point, though he isn’t ready to endorse the deal just yet. He’s still reading its 844 pages and promises to suggest some tweaks.

At a glance

Immigration reform legislation

The hefty immigration bill now before Congress is the first serious effort for comprehensive reform since the failed attempt during President George W. Bush’s second term. The bill — which is up for its first committee debate and vote beginning May 9 — would beef up border security at the same time it provides work permits to many of the immigrants already here illegally. It also would establish a lengthy process for undocumented immigrants to attain U.S. citizenship.

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But he appears willing to support what he couldn’t under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 or President George W. Bush in 2006 — a path to citizenship.

"I think most people have come to the conclusion that we have 11 million people here who are not going to go back to their countries, many of whom are children who have never known their prior country," he said. "There’s got to be a fair system that gives these people some opportunity to become good substantial citizens."

Hatch said the proposal’s 13-year citizenship track satisfies his long-held demand that unauthorized immigrants should not get citizenship faster than those who went through legal channels.

And he criticized past immigration bills, most notably the law under Reagan, for being heavy on offering citizenship but light on securing the border, something he says the most recent version corrects.

Still, Hatch sought to give Reagan, under whom 3 million immigrants received amnesty, the benefit of the doubt.

"He was trying to do what’s right," Hatch said, "and if I vote for this, it will be because I’m trying to do what is right."

A matter of faith » Hatch appeared to be moved by his conversations with Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and said the Catholic Church has been working "hand in glove" with leaders in the Mormon faith, of which he is a member.

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"Personally, I think most religions would like to see these myriad problems resolved," Hatch said. "I know the Catholic Church would. I think the LDS Church would."

The senator said LDS officials haven’t talked to him about the proposal but "they know I know how they feel."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the Senate bill, but Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor to President Thomas S. Monson in the faith’s governing First Presidency, joined other religious leaders in a meeting with President Barack Obama in March. Afterward, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that Obama’s reform blueprint was in line with Mormon values, particularly in showing compassion to immigrants.

Obama has endorsed the Senate immigration plan, which was crafted by four Democrats and four Republicans. It runs the gamut from boosting the number of agents on the border to speeding up issuing visas and immediately offering work permits to most immigrants here illegally.

It also includes a permanent extension of the religious-worker visa program, which Hatch considers a personal victory. He has championed the program that offers 5,000 visas each year to religious workers — including Mormon missionaries — who will help the poor.

A seat at the table » The senator’s fingerprints are on other sections of the bill as well. He was an original sponsor of the Dream Act, which offers a faster path to citizenship for children of unauthorized immigrants who attend college or join the military.

Hatch opposed the previous version of the bill, pushed in 2010, arguing Democrats were politicizing it, but he’s glad it is in the most recent proposal.

"The concept of the Dream Act is a good concept," he said. "Why take it out on the kids?"

More recently, Hatch joined bipartisan teams that focused on providing employers with the immigrant labor they desire. He led an effort to boost the number of visas for workers with engineering, science, math or technology backgrounds from 65,000 to as many as 300,000 per year, depending on the economy. A version of this plan is in the bill, and he says he’ll try to get the Senate to adopt his proposal in its entirety.

He also joined an effort spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to boost the number of migrant agriculture workers and to allow those here illegally to gain citizenship within five years.

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