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Utah bucks conservative trend on illegal immigration

President Obama’s aides were flabbergasted. Here was Mark Shurtleff, the conservative Republican attorney general of deeply red Utah, explaining how he and other GOP officials had approved a statewide version of the immigration measures that the president and his progressive allies have long sought.

“You sued us on healthcare,” Shurtleff recalls the aides saying during his meeting in Washington this month. “How is it you did something differently on immigration?”

The answer lies in how Utah expresses its conservative values — particularly the importance placed on family and business — and the influence of the Mormon Church.

Gov. Gary Herbert last week signed a bill that would give illegal immigrants who do not commit serious crimes and are working in Utah documents that, in the state’s eyes at least, make them legal residents. For the law to work, however, the Obama administration would have to permit Utah to make it legal to employ people who entered the United States illegally — a federal crime.

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Even the law’s proponents acknowledge that’s an uphill battle.

But they contend that, in symbolism alone, the effort by Utah’s conservative government to offer a warm welcome to illegal immigrants can reshape the contentious debate over the issue. Washington has been paralyzed since 2006, when President George W. Bush was unable to persuade other Republicans to approve a national version of what Utah has enacted.

“Utah is proof that there is a true silent majority of decent, level-headed Americans,” said Paul Mero, head of the conservative Sutherland Institute here. “Conservative Republican members of Congress will be able to take a step back, not be so knee-jerk and caught up in the fear-mongering, and say, ‘Look at Utah, the reddest of the red.’ ”

Opponents of the measure are hoping to turn Utah into another sort of symbol. They’re organizing primary challenges against Herbert and state lawmakers who backed the bill. Activists are pushing county Republican Party committees to censure legislators who voted for it.

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“A large percentage of elected officials will lose their seats,” vowed Arturo Morales Llan, an activist against illegal immigration. Legislators in other states will say, ‘Wow, if this happened in Utah and we do it here, we may face the same consequences.’ ”

Utah has long had softer laws on illegal immigration than even states such as California. It allows illegal-immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and gives “driving privilege cards” to undocumented migrants to allow them to obtain insurance.

The dynamic is partly explained by the number of people in Utah who have performed missions in other countries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are sympathetic to the plight of outsiders.

But in recent years, anger against illegal immigration has spread to Utah as well. Two veteran GOP members of Congress — Rep. Chris Cannon and Sen. Robert F. Bennett — were ousted in primaries partly because of their defense of illegal immigrants. After Arizona passed a tough measure targeting illegal immigrants, polls in Utah showed a wide majority favoring a similar law.

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The Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce was alarmed. It had noted a sharp uptick in convention business after Arizona passed its law and conventions there were canceled as the state became the target of boycotts. It didn’t want Utah’s image to go the way of its southern neighbor.

“There’s a core of decency and goodness and friendliness here,” Jason Mathis, the chamber’s executive director, said of Utah. “We wanted something that was short and sweet and would remind people of the better angels of their nature.”

The chamber and other business and civic groups wrote a document they called the “Utah Compact.” It called for a focus on families and empathy in immigration policy, and using police to fight crime rather than enforce immigration laws. The Mormon Church endorsed the document.

Lawmakers drew up several versions of the guest-worker program, which moved through both houses at the same time as Republican state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom’s proposed Arizona-style bill. But Sandstrom’s bill was watered down in the legislative process, while the guest-worker bills passed with key provisions intact. Sandstrom skipped the signing ceremony in protest.

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Arizona requires police to check the immigration status of people stopped for any violation — including infractions such as jaywalking — if police suspect they are illegal immigrants. Utah’s law applies only to people arrested for felonies and serious misdemeanors.

Under the guest-worker law, anyone who worked in Utah before May of this year — and their immediate family — can receive documents if they pass a background check and pay a fine of up to $2,500 if they entered the country illegally. They will, however, still be subject to possible deportation by federal immigration agents. A statewide poll last month found 71% support for the law’s provisions.

Sandstrom said church lobbyists spent the final week of the legislative session at the Capitol pushing for the law. H. David Burton, the church’s presiding bishop, stood by Herbert as the governor signed the measure last week, along with Sandstrom’s bill.

“If the church had been silent, the [guest-worker] bill wouldn’t have passed,” Sandstrom said. “It’s an absolute tragedy for the state of Utah.”

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Ronald Mortensen, an activist against illegal immigration who is also a church member, said some people are thinking of cutting back donations to the church. “They’re trying to protect their international interests at the expense, I’d say, of their Utah interests,” he said of the church leadership.

Meanwhile, backers of the Utah Compact are meeting with business and political leaders in other states to try to create a national version of document.

“Something has got to break the gridlock on immigration policy in the United States,” said Republican state Sen. Curtis Bramble, a longtime supporter of a guest-worker program. “If we’ve done nothing more than push the debate further down the road than the year before, it’s hard to say that’s bad for the country.”

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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