Divisive immigration issue dominates state's majority party convention.
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Sandy • They arrived with steely resolve, some wearing blue T-shirts festooned with buttons that implored their fellow Republican delegates to honor the Constitution and reject Utah's guest-worker law.
They left with smiles and a sense of confidence that their desire to repeal HB116 through a resolution was on track and that those who supported the guest-worker measure needed to follow their lead either in a special session or during the next legislative session.
It was the immigration showdown at the Republican State Party Convention, and Saturday's vote on the resolution was close enough that Convention Chairwoman Enid Greene Mickelsen needed to call for a standing count among the 1,572 delegates remaining at the end of a long day to determine the resolution's outcome.
"This is Rocky Ridge," Mickelsen said. "This is the hardest pull on our journey today. I know emotions are running high."
So was tension.
While the votes were being counted, Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch spoke to the somewhat distracted crowd that had slogged through the entire morning of parliamentary procedures in the South Towne Expo Center and the passage of the party's constitution and bylaws and anxiously awaited to hear the final vote.
Mickelsen then made the announcement. The resolution passed 833-739.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who had battled against HB116, grinned uncontrollably when he saw Brandon Beckham, one of the key leaders in the move to repeal the guest-worker bill. They hugged and slapped each other on the back. Arturo Morales-LLan, who gave an impassioned speech on the resolution at the Utah County Republican Convention, stood nearby and pumped his fist in the air.
Beckham, who came in third out of three Saturday in his bid to be elected state vice chairman, said it was clear what it all meant.
"It's a campaign issue for the rest of the year and into next year," he said. "They [lawmakers] know they have to repeal the bill. The delegates have spoken."
Gov. Gary Herbert and most Utah lawmakers all 75 state House members and half of the 29 senators are up for election next year. And they need support of delegates to make it onto the ballot.
The guest-worker law signed by Herbert in March seeks a federal waiver to allow the state to grant visas to undocumented immigrants in Utah. It is scheduled to take effect July 2013, but could go online sooner if the federal government were to grant it permission.
However, critics say HB116 is unconstitutional and the federal government would not approve the program and would only end up in a lawsuit against the state. The law essentially allows the state to fine undocumented workers $2,500 for being in the state without papers and $1,000 for overstaying a visa. It also requires them to pass background checks before being issued a visa, which would be good for two years.
Herbert, who addressed a half-empty convention center well after the resolution had passed, disagreed with the idea that the issue is divisive for the majority Republican Party or that the resolution was some sort of battle for the party's heart and soul.
Instead, he said the core trait of the party is its ability to discuss complicated issues.
"I'm here to tell you that this is the heart and soul of the Republican Party's process and I'm proud to be a part of that process," Herbert said. "The heart and soul of the Republican Party is alive and well."
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, was thick into the battle, however, when he called out from the convention floor that the resolution "should be on the agenda of the Democratic convention."
In addition to rankling GOP opponents on the immigration question, the comment irked Utah Democratic chairman candidate Jim Dabakis.
"Preposterous," he said of Bramble's statement. "It should be right where it is on the agenda of the right-wing crazies of the Republican convention, where it passed."
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who sent emails out urging support for the anti-HB116 resolution, said he hoped the party could repair any rifts that might have developed during the contentious debate that included videos, active email campaigns and several statements from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that were dissected and parsed by people on both sides of the issue.
"I would hate to see it fracture our party," he said. "I hope it's something we can get past."
Keri Witte began a couple months ago trying to get similarly worded resolutions to stop the guest-worker bill from being passed at GOP county conventions. It eventually succeeded in Salt Lake, Utah and Washington counties, but failed in Weber, Davis and other counties leaving Saturday's vote in question.
She said Saturday's result was a "grass roots effort" that reflected the will of the people.
"It sends a message that we don't want amnesty," she said. "Now they need to do the right thing and repeal this bill."
Because of the nonbinding nature of the resolution, the only method to repeal the guest-worker law is through referendum or by changing it in the Legislature. Former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook has launched a county-by-county initiative to repeal it, and proponents of that measure were at the convention supporting the resolution as well.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has championed the guest-worker law in Washington, was disappointed with the outcome of the vote, but he attributed it to extreme elements showing up in droves in an off-election year.
"I have to admit there is a shift in the party to the extreme," Shurtleff said. "But I don't think it reflects the views of average Utahns."
And Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said lawmakers were already looking at changes to HB116.
"This legislation is like most pieces of legislation. It isn't perfect," Lockhart said. "We will probably address it in terms of amending it or strengthening it or clarifying it in the future."
The lead-up to the vote took a long time as the convention dragged behind schedule and it looked early on like things might not be explosive. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist was the keynote speaker and was part of American Principles in Action, a Washington, D.C.-based group supporting HB116. However, he was greeted warmly and did not mention immigration in his talk. Earlier, when Lee Gardner of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly spoke about the danger of his party alienating Latino votes, there were virtually no outbursts.
But Mickelsen grew testy with some delegates who tried to move things out of order on the floor and, at one point, shouted down a delegate.
By the time the immigration resolution vote happened late in the afternoon, about 600 delegates had already bled out. Shurtleff said that probably hurt the pro-HB116 side as those who were opposing it were "dug in" while more moderate delegate voters were more likely "at home mowing their lawns."
But Elizabeth Claflin, a Riverton delegate, stuck around. She described the guest-worker bill as a "step in the right direction" for the state.
"It holds people accountable," she said. "It is not giving amnesty. It is not making them citizens. It is giving us some kind of control in our state."
GOP leadership elections
Chairman • Thomas Wright, former Salt Lake County Republican chairman who has been serving as the state chairman for several months, was elected to a full two-year term by delegates.
Vice chairman • Lowell Nelson ousted incumbent Christy Achziger.
Secretary • Drew Chamberlain defeated incumbent Dana Dickson.
Treasurer • Mike McCauley was elected after running unopposed.