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Conservatives among those off to D.C. for immigration reform

First Published Oct 28 2013 10:12 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:36 pm

Washington » They want immigration reform, and they want it now.

Activists will descend Tuesday on the U.S. Capitol to pressure House Republicans to restart a national debate about visas, border security and paths to citizenship — and participants are far more eclectic than you might think.

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Mixed in with the Latino youths and the Catholic priests are people such as Stan Lockhart, a former chairman of the Utah Republican Party, who called reform "a moral issue."

"Our country is a nation of immigrants," he said, "and we need to fix a broken system that is de facto amnesty."

Lockhart is one of about a dozen Utahns participating in the "Americans for Reform fly in" organized by such groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and FWD.us, a lobbying effort started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, along with Partnership for a New American Economy. In all, about 600 community leaders, many of them conservatives, will press House members to act — at least on incremental immigration reform.

Other Utahns expected to participate include Todd Bingham with the Utah Manufacturers Association, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Jesus Loya of the Park City Angels, a group trying to make it easier for the children of undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

The very existence of the fly-in shows that immigration reform is faltering in Congress.

The Senate already passed a broad overhaul that would tighten border security, expand access to visas and provide a 13-year path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. The House panned that effort and has instead started work on a series of smaller pieces of legislation. A few of those, including a border-security bill, have cleared committee, but there appears little appetite among Republicans to move forward on the issue anytime soon.

"It’s disappointing," said Randy Parker, chief executive officer of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, who is among those lobbying members of Congress this week. "This is an issue that shouldn’t be shrouded in politics. It should be discussed out in the open."

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A deal breaker » Many Farm Bureau members rely on foreign labor to herd livestock, milk cows and harvest crops, and they say the inaction in Congress has resulted in fruit rotting in the fields.

"Utah agriculture," Parker said, "really needs a stable policy that allows people to come in on work visas."

There’s wide bipartisan support for such a plan. The sticking point in this debate has long been what to do with those already here illegally.

Parker said his members are not in favor of an "amnesty program," but at the same time he called the 13-year path to citizenship in the Senate bill "pretty strenuous."

"Without doing something about it, we have amnesty right now," Parker said. "There is nothing being done. Let’s get something done that makes sense, for heaven’s sake."

President Barack Obama has signaled a willingness to tackle the issue in chunks, like the House has proposed, as long as a citizenship path is included.

That’s a deal breaker for Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart.

Chaffetz, R-Utah, called the Senate plan "amnesty" and something he couldn’t support.

"If something includes flat-out direct amnesty, I will vote against it," he said. "And that’s a shame, because I’m trying to fix this."

He supports five bills that have passed committee. One reason they haven’t come before the full House is a concern by some conservatives that if one passes, it could be used as a vehicle to move the Senate’s broader reform.

"It’s a legitimate concern and against something the speaker and our Republican leadership need to clarify," said Chaffetz, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration issues.

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