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Immigration law driving a rift between Utah Republicans

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinElephant_Thumb.jpgLike Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama and South Carolina, Utah has passed an immigration enforcement law requiring police to check the immigration status of people arrested or detained for felonies or significant misdemeanors, as well as requiring firms of a certain size to verify the legal status of their employees. Unlike those other states, however, the Utah legislature also included a guest worker program, scheduled to start in 2013, allowing undocumented immigrants in the state to pay a fine and obtain temporary authorization to work. The program is illegal under federal law, unless Congress gives Utah a waiver allowing them to proceed with it. As the Colorado Independent has reported, the law achieved distinction by alienating both immigrant rights activists and conservatives, and is dividing the state GOP, which dominates the legislature and controls the governor’s mansion.

It’s also causing a rift between state lawmakers and their federal counterparts. Last Friday, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart wrote an op-ed in the Daily Herald that was strongly critical of the Utah congressional delegation’s apparent disregard for the state immigration reform package. Lockhart called out each member of Utah’s delegation by name:

Congressman Jim Matheson feels so strongly about the issue that he gives it a total of four sentence on his “Issues” page. Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee dismissed the efforts out of hand. Rep. Chaffetz says it’s unconstitutional. But that’s why we built in a two-year delay — to apply for and receive a waiver to show what we can do. Sen. Lee says he doesn’t think a federal waiver is an option. How about he propose federal legislation to make it an option? Sen. Orrin Hatch said he couldn’t help us. Congressman Bishop remains curiously silent. These self-proclaimed champions of states’ rights didn’t even give us the courtesy of pointing to Utah as an example of what could be a starting point at the federal level.

Except for Matheson, all of the federal legislators mentioned by Lockhart are Republicans. All are also Mormons, a church whose leadership called for federal immigration reform in June, including “an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship,” but also rejected “any state legislation that only contains enforcement provisions.”

Since Lockhart’s op-ed was published, Lee, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2010 midterm, has stated that he is open to discussion about getting a federal waiver for the Utah guest worker program, although he did not endorse the waiver.

Hatch has made no public statements about Lockhart’s statement and has not responded to TAI’s request for comment. A co-sponsor of the DREAM Act when it was first introduced in the Senate several years ago, Hatch now faces a potential tea party primary challenge over his perceived moderation on a number of issues and has made a visible effort to move to the right on immigration. His website doesn’t mention support for legalization of undocumented immigrants, and it emphasizes border security as the most important issue.

As for the representatives, Bishop’s spokesperson told the Salt Lake Tribune that he believes more should be done, but that “we must first begin by securing our border.” Chaffetz, who is a favored candidate to challenge Hatch in the primary, called Lockhart’s op-ed “factually incorrect.” Rep. Matheson has also not yet returned TAI’s request for comment. During his 2010 campaign for Congress, he criticized state-level attempts at immigration reform and said “this is a federal issue.”

Immigration appears to be exposing serious rifts within the Utah Republican Party in other ways: Last month, in a very close vote, delegates at the Utah GOP convention voted in favor of repealing the guest worker law, putting pressure on Gov. Herbert to reverse course. Mother Jones reported Wednesday on a poll showing that since the November 2010 election, favorability for the tea party has plummeted among Utah independents and Democrats even as it has become more popular among Republicans, indicating that the primary season could drive the party even further to the right on immigration in the coming months.

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