Washington • Supporters of the Utah Compact are trying to carry their momentum into a national campaign on immigration reform but have run into a stubborn obstacle.
No federal official from the state has publicly endorsed the plan and some have been outright hostile about state laws inspired by the Compact.
"We all keep saying we've got to get somebody in our delegation to support comprehensive reform and we are not there yet," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who was in Washington for an immigration forum Tuesday organized by Georgetown Law School. "Everyone says start with your own. I've got my work cut out for me, there's no doubt about it."
Shurtleff made his pitch to Sen. Orrin Hatch but got nowhere and he's not optimistic about any of Utah's House members. His next target is Sen. Mike Lee, the freshman senator who campaigned on eliminating the constitutional amendment that gives any baby born in America automatic citizenship.
"He's completely wrong on the 14th amendment," Shurtleff said. "But I've committed to certain members of Congress that I would [try] to work with Mike Lee. I think he may be the one hope within our delegation."
Lee says he's willing to hear the attorney general's ideas, but Shurtleff shouldn't get too hopeful.
Lee remains tentative when it comes to one big over-arching reform bill, but he has sponsored legislation limiting citizenship at birth to those with at least one parent who is a citizen or legal resident, and he's working on a proposal to streamline the process to get a visa to enter the country.
"My current personal inclination is to deal with the elephant by eating it a bite at a time and go piecemeal," Lee said.
Like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Lee expressed his reservations with the state's guest worker law, HB116, saying it would be hard to get Congress to act on a proposal that "has the look and feel of amnesty."
Shurtleff is a big supporter of the guest-worker law, which would go into effect in 2013 if the state can get the federal government to sign off. He expects comments such as Lee's from his Republican colleagues as he works on a federal proposal but he believes that talking point will eventually change if the Utah Compact goes national.
"There's a way to do comprehensive reform without having to be worried about the dreaded term 'amnesty,' " he said.
Shurtleff is a driving force behind "America's Compact," a federal take on the document signed by Utah business leaders, faith groups and law enforcement personnel that outlines humane guidelines for immigration reform, such as trying to keep families intact and respecting the economic contributions of all. The LDS Church did not sign, but has endorsed, the Utah Compact.
The attorney general is trying to persuade his colleagues from other states to sign a national version in either June or July and he sees it as a way to restart the congressional debate on comprehensive immigration reform.
He says he knows there's currently little appetite in Washington to take on the daunting and highly-charged topic, but he sees the Compact as a shield for politicians worried about getting attacked for supporting amnesty if they vote for a bill that includes some path to citizenship or a guest-worker program.
What Shurtleff doesn't have is hard evidence that his theory is correct, at least not yet. For that, he'll have to wait until next year when most of the state legislators who supported Utah's guest-worker bill are up for re-election. Some GOP groups, such as the Salt Lake County Republican Party, have already called for a repeal of the bill and others have vowed to take out their anger on Gov. Gary Herbert when he faces voters in 2012. Despite this, Shurtleff expects most of the 43 state House members and 21 state senators who supported the bill to survive.
Whether the immigration laws they passed actually survive is another matter. The Department of Justice may sue the state over its new enforcement law (HB497) and guest-worker law, charging that immigration is squarely a federal issue.
Shurtleff had his second face-to-face meeting with Justice officials at the Department of Justice in an attempt to head off a federal lawsuit and Herbert is expected to take a turn when he flies to Washington in a few weeks.
While Shurtleff can't say the federal government won't take action against the state as it did with Arizona, he left the meeting optimistic.
"It was positive," said Shurtleff. "We need a way to try and progress this and we are hoping we can do that without litigation."
In his meeting on Monday, Shurtleff downplayed Utah's enforcement law, saying it essentially was a political move to appease those calling for a tough immigration bill.
Unlike Arizona's harder-line law, Utah's enforcement measure only applies to potential felons and class A misdemeanants and allows police to ask for proof of residency, but essentially relies on jails to determine if a person is in the country illegally or not, just as under current law.
"I really don't think you are going to see much of a change from what we currently do," he said.
The Utah Compact
The statement of principles endorsed by community, business and religious leaders focuses on:
Acknowledging immigration as a federal issue
Treating all people humanely
Keeping families together
Recognizing the economic contributions of all workers, documented or not