Washington • Congressional Republicans should embrace broad immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other GOP activists urged Tuesday.
They joined like-minded religious leaders and law enforcement officials at the National Press Club to kick off a two-day strategy session sponsored by the National Immigration Forum.
Shurtleff plans to take a seat on the Forum's board of directors when his term as attorney general ends in early January and he looks forward to lobbying Congress to pass a landmark immigration bill in 2013. But to do that, the advocates will have to overcome strong Republican opposition to the idea of amnesty.
He says Republicans are all too often afraid of anti-immigration groups, which he equated to the political fringe, and he called the most recent election, where Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats, an opportunity.
"It is to my party that I'm speaking. We have been talking to the wrong crowd. We've been worried about the wrong people. We've been pandering in some cases to a small minority of our party," said Shurtleff, who ripped states like Arizona that have focused heavily on enforcing federal immigration laws.
The Salt Lake Chamber's chief economist Natalie Gochnour also attended the D.C. event and called for "sweeping" reform.
Utah's members of Congress are not in agreement.
The state's Republican lawmakers have advocated for a piecemeal approach to the immigration issue with a heavy emphasis on border security and a streamlined visa process, while Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has called for a comprehensive bill.
All of them have opposed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
And none of them have signed the Utah Compact, a now 2-year-old guiding document signed by Utah business, faith and government leaders that calls for a federal solution to immigration and a compassionate stance toward the immigrants already in the country. The Compact spurred the state Legislature to pass reforms that went beyond only enforcement to include a temporary guest worker program, which has yet to be implemented.
Shurtleff hasn't given up on Utah's members of Congress and called out Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as a proven dealmaker who, after winning another term in office last month, could emerge as a leader on the issue.
Hatch spokesman Matt Harakal noted the senator is the top Republican on the Finance Committee focused on the fiscal cliff and tax reform, but he has taken an interest in legislation focused on visas for highly skilled workers.
"Sen. Hatch agrees that America's immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. He has said he'd be happy to listen to and work with his colleagues on how to address this important issue," Harakal said.
All immigration-related bills have stalled in Congress in recent years and the last major attempt at a comprehensive solution failed in 2007. It has put pressure on states like Utah to act.
"Utah is a state that recognizes the economic contributions of immigrants. Utah is a state that puts families first," Gochnour said. "I'm here today on behalf of Utah businesses that ask people inside the beltway to replicate some of the magic that is occurring in the states."
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and Paul Mero, the Sutherland Institute's executive director, also participated in the sessions, which included a number of outspoken religious leaders.
Jaime Soto, a Catholic bishop from Sacramento, called immigration reform an issue of "humanity" and Richard Land with the Southern Baptist Convention said: "We must resolve our nation's immigration crisis and reform its immigration system in ways that respect the rule of law and the human dignity of the undocumented."
The participants did respond to two potential roadblocks a faltering economy and Republicans concerned about political reprisals.
Gochnour pointed out that states have unique economic situations and their own hiring needs. She noted that Utah with a 5.2 percent unemployment rate has labor shortages in certain high-end jobs as well as many openings in jobs near the minimum wage.
"We need workers. The challenge has been to balance the needs of American trained workers with people we need from out of country as well," she said.
And on the national stage, Land said, Republicans should support the effort if they want to compete for Hispanic votes.
"What is in it for the Republican Party is survival," he said.
Shurtleff said Republican members of Congress need to know that "we will have your back," with strong financial and public support from the business, faith and law enforcement communities.
He said some Utah Republicans who supported a guest worker law were targeted by those on the far right, but all of them won re-election.
"We understand at the end of the day the political necessity that people want to get re-elected," Shurtleff said. "You can do this and you can succeed."