Supporters of Utah's guest-worker immigration law on Monday launched the first substantive effort in its defense with a website laying out a case for supporting the law to delegates considering the issue at the upcoming Republican state convention.
Last week, supporters of HB116 including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Sutherland Institute, lawmakers and several immigration lawyers met at the chamber's downtown offices to coordinate the public relations push.
Scott Trotter, spokesman for the LDS Church, issued a statement saying it wasn't involved in the effort, but also allowed for some wiggle room as to whether a statement might be issued by the church soon.
"We believe the package of bills passed by the Utah Legislature, including House Bill 116, is a responsible approach to the complex question of immigration reform, and reserve the right to make our position clear and set the record straight now and in the future if it is necessary," Trotter's statement read.
Jeremy Roberts, recently-elected Utah County Republican Party secretary, said the need for a campaign and the HB116.info website came as a result of a barrage of anti-HB116 material that began moments after Gov. Gary Herbert signed a raft of immigration bills at a ceremony last March attended by a roomful of supporters, including H. David Burton, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That assault on the bill, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain guest-worker visas after paying fines and submitting to background checks, featured a website (repeal116.com) looking to scrap it. A resolution calling for the repeal of HB116 has passed in Utah, Salt Lake and Washington county Republican conventions and will be a key battle at the June 18 state party convention.
"House Bill 116 is a very big piece of legislation. The majority of the delegates have not read it and you have individuals who are making false claims about what the bill does and doesn't do," said Roberts. "We've created a campaign to get our message to delegates and let them know what House Bill 116 really is."
An agenda for a June 2 meeting of the Immigration Messaging Group featured a study of videos, campaign funding and a business leaders' letter spearheaded by LaVarr Webb, a Salt Lake City political consultant.
The website (hb116.info), which was registered about a month ago, allows visitors to enter the site legally or "illegally." Those who click the latter get bounced to the federal government's immigration enforcement page. The "legal" version prominently features the public statements by the LDS Church in support of the bill.
Roberts scoffs at opponents of the bill who still doubt the church's support for the measure, saying that there is no way top Mormon leaders are "letting their [public relations] department go off the reservation."
"I think the [Republican] Party's anti-establishment arm has gotten to the point where it has carried over from their politics to their religion," he said.
Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is supportive of the effort, but acknowledged the style isn't "our M.O."
He also said the chamber isn't looking at the June 18 date as a make-or-break moment.
"I think a lot will want to paint it as the showdown at the OK Corral," Carpenter said. "I don't know that we buy into that."
But Stan Lockhart, a leader of the pro-HB116 movement and former state GOP chairman, said the anti-HB116 side has been more effective and more aggressive in getting its message out, and said it wasn't until the resolution's passage at the Utah County Republican convention that the need to do something became imperative.
Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said the party establishment may have been overconfident that once the bill was signed, the fight was over.
"I think they thought it was the end of the game, and if senior political officials and notables said, 'We think this is wonderful,' everyone would go along with them," he said. "They're so used to people listening to them, they thought they didn't have to do anything else. That would be my guess."
Roberts said his aim is to educate delegates about what HB116 does. Among other things, it prohibits people who commit identity theft from getting a guest-worker permit, requires anyone applying for guest-worker status to submit to a background check with fingerprints and facial recognition scan, prohibits applicants from receiving entitlements and establishes a fund to compensate victims of identity theft. The law wouldn't go into effect until 2013 or after the federal government grants a waiver.
"The repeal-the-bill effort is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to our state," Roberts said. "If there are delegates who are willing to openly fight against the LDS Church and there are delegates who sincerely think we should reopen places like Topaz [an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in WWII] and begin rounding up brown people … then maybe there are people who should think about getting [politically] involved and replacing those delegates."
Get more information on Utah's guest-worker law
O Learn more about the pros and cons of the guest-worker immigration law by going online to these websites:
Pro-guest-worker law website • hb116.info
Anti-guest-worker law website • repeal116.com