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Hatch: Immigration reform can’t wait

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In both of those efforts, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., served as Hatch’s Republican partner. Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is widely seen as the key figure to persuade Republicans to support the bill. He is part of the original "Gang of Eight" that created the bill, and proponents, including a group backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have used him as the centerpiece of an ad campaign that is running in Utah and elsewhere.

Hatch heaped praise on Rubio, who was elected in 2010, calling him "one of the best additions" to the Senate.

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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"He’s smart, he’s articulate, he’s charismatic," Hatch said. "And he’s Cuban, he’s Latino, which certainly gives him a position of respect in the sense that he understands these communities better than most of the rest of us."

Rubio returned the compliment and urged the Senate to listen to Hatch’s proposed amendments when the Senate Judiciary Committee starts debating the bill May 9.

"The bill we’ve introduced is a starting point for debate, but we could not have even gotten there without Orrin’s work on the high-tech and agriculture parts," he said. "Orrin’s expertise and leadership have been indispensable, and I hope the committee seriously considers his suggestions for how to improve the bill."

Dealing with dissent » Hatch’s work on business-friendly portions of the bill made it all the more surprising when Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie blasted Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who opposes the legislation.

Furious that Utah’s senators signed a letter arguing for a multiyear debate on immigration, Beattie went as far as suggesting it was time to replace them.

He talked with Hatch by phone that same early April afternoon, when the senator distanced himself from the letter, saying he didn’t want to drag out the debate beyond this year, but he did want a chance to offer amendments. By the end of their conversation, Beattie was optimistic that at least one lawmaker from Utah might support immigration reform.

"I’ve been encouraged with what he has told me," Beattie said. "He’s anxious to get a resolution."

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But Hatch knows that many within his party are not going to accept this bill.

"I believe most of our citizens respect honest, decent, hardworking people and really appreciate that immigration has been a way of life for our country from the start. What they don’t respect is people breaking our laws. That is always going to be a problem," he said.

Arturo Morales-Llan is among the immigration-reform critics. He’s a real estate agent from Provo who legally immigrated here in the early 1990s and has become an outspoken GOP activist against comprehensive immigration reform.

He said in a rough economy Washington should be looking out for U.S. citizens, not illegal immigrants, and he said the nation should not take actions to legalize anyone until the border is locked down and employers are checking the immigration status of each worker.

Offering any sort of legal status in concert with other reforms, he warned, would only result in more people rushing to cross the border.

"I am opposed to anything that is comprehensive. I would like to see a piecemeal deal," he said, expressing the same opinion held by Lee and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, among other Republicans.

Morales-Llan said Hatch’s willingness to work on a comprehensive immigration bill shows he has "been in Washington too long. He is out of touch."

Hatch argues that Republicans calling for piecemeal reform are ignoring political reality. Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate will reject any bill that doesn’t include a path to citizenship for millions already here. He believes some of the opponents in his party and some of the supporters among Democrats are motivated by electoral politics. Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012 and many expect newly minted citizens to follow a similar pattern.

"There’s no doubt most of them will," Hatch said "Republicans have a job ahead of us to try to win them over, but I think we are up to the challenge."

For the senator, the potential positives outweigh the drawbacks, and he fears what will happen if this effort fails.

"I think if it is defeated, we won’t do anything for another 10 years. And we’ll just let what really is a festering sore continue to fester," Hatch said. "I think we’ve got to face up to this."

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