Utah politicians accused President Barack Obama of pandering to Latino voters after he vowed Friday to block the deportation of young immigrants as long as they get an education or join the military.
This idea is modeled after the Dream Act, legislation that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson once ardently supported but have since backed away from.
"The fact that the president would use children as an election-year ploy is offensive," said Hatch, who like many other Republicans also argued Obama's new rule is an unauthorized expansion of power. "A policy issue like immigration needs to go through Congress."
Hatch, who is seeking a seventh term in November, first sponsored the Dream Act in 2001, and Matheson signed on as a co-sponsor in 2004. The idea has fallen out of favor since then with conservatives, and Hatch and Matheson opposed the measure in 2010 when it fell short in the Senate.
Hatch vocally opposed it then but missed the vote for family reasons.
"I just personally feel that it is brought up at this time for pure political purposes," Hatch said then, "and I resent that."
Matheson took a position similar to that of many Republicans.
"We are a nation of laws, and until we demonstrate that we can secure our borders and address our broken immigration system through comprehensive reform, I cannot support piecemeal measures no matter how well-intended," Matheson said at the time.
Utah's lone Democratic member of Congress, who is seeking a seventh term this fall, has yet to comment on the president's action Friday.
Hatch briefly mentioned the Dream Act on Friday during a radio debate with his Republican opponent, Dan Liljenquist, saying, "I get a lot of criticism for the Dream Act," which he argued was connected to a Utah law offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. He also said he still supports that original bill but insists the more recent proposal "has been totally distorted."
In a post-debate interview, Liljenquist ripped Obama for taking the action, which he claimed is unconstitutional, and criticized Hatch for what he sees as broad failure by Washington to handle the thorny immigration issue.
"Senator Hatch, like everyone else in Washington," he added, "has been nibbling on the edge of immigration reform."
Liljenquist doesn't think Congress or the president should pass any laws handling the people in the country illegally until three things are done: "Secure the borders, open legal immigration and implement reasonable security measures like E-Verify."
The winner of the June 26 GOP primary will face Democrat Scott Howell, who applauded Obama's action, calling it "a common-sense approach toward immigration."
"Individuals who wish to seek out the American dream," Howell said, "should be able to do so safely and legally."
Obama's new rule, while modeled on the Dream Act, doesn't give eligible immigrants citizenship, but it would allow them to legally work here. The move could impact hundreds of thousands of people, who would not face deportation for two years, subject to renewals.
"This is not amnesty. This is not immunity," Obama said. "This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely, while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the right thing to do."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, disagreed.
"It's amnesty. It's wrong and I'm opposed, President Obama is not king," Chaffetz said. "I have some serious questions about his authority to make such an alteration."
Freshman Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, dismissed the move as a step toward "amnesty" and challenged the legitimacy of the decree.
"This is yet another example," Lee said, "of the president's disrespect for the rule of law and our democratic political process."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, disagrees with Lee. He believes the Obama administration is wisely using its "prosecutorial discretion," focusing its efforts on illegal immigrants who commit crime rather than those in school.
"They have the right to say we don't have the resources to go after everybody," he said. "That, I believe, is well within their powers, and I think it is good public safety policy."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, argued that the president should be spending more time on border security. And, like Hatch, took note that Obama issued the new rule just as the presidential race against Republican Mitt Romney is heating up, a campaign in which most see Hispanics as a key voting bloc.
Said Bishop: "This sure seems like thinly veiled pandering during an election year."