The head of the Salt Lake Chamber blasted Utah's senators Tuesday for stalling immigration reform that he said businesses badly need.
"Maybe it's time for us to recall [them] and get some people who understand what we need in business," said Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber.
Beattie's comments came as leaders from eight chambers of commerce across the state came together in what they called a "show of force," urging Utah's congressional delegation to act quickly on an immigration-reform package that would include an expansion of visas for highly skilled workers and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee signed a letter recently urging Senate leaders to move more deliberately on immigration reform and calling for a series of committee hearings on the proposals a course of action that could take months and perhaps more than a year.
But Beattie argued immigration is an issue that has been studied enough and the business community is pleading with Congress to act quickly.
"I am personally extremely disappointed in our two senators," he said. "For them to come out and [say] that they think we need more time is absolutely ridiculous to me. I don't know an issue that has had more time, more discussion, more promises, more disappointment than immigration."
Beattie, who is the former Utah Senate president and was encouraged by some to run for governor, was particularly critical of Hatch, who he said has historically been at the forefront of immigration reform during his Senate career.
"For one of our senators who literally led immigration reform in the U.S. Senate … to say we need to slow the system down, let me tell you, that's not what we need to do," Beattie said.
In a lengthy written response, Hatch's office called Beattie's comments "misinformed and misleading" and said the senator continues to push for immigration reform, including introducing a bill in January designed to expand the pool of visas for skilled workers.
Hatch has also been working with other senators on legislation to deal with the need for agricultural workers, said spokesman Matt Harakal.
But Harakal said the senator would not commit to supporting a proposal from the so-called Gang of Eight a bipartisan group of senators hammering out a reform proposal until a bill is written.
"Senator Hatch doesn't back bills based on bullet points without seeing the bill text," Harakal said. "He believes that Utahns should have the ability to view any immigration proposal once it is actually written into a bill and have the ability to weigh in. That is why he believes any comprehensive immigration proposal should be thoroughly examined and vetted through the Judiciary Committee."
Lee said the last time Congress passed major legislation without reading it, the result was Obamacare, and any CEO who would sign on to a 1,000-page agreement without reading it "would be immediately recalled by the board of directors."
"It is critically important that the Senate and the American people have time to evaluate the specifics of any legislative proposal," Lee said. "Immigration reform will have lasting effects for generations. Asking for a few weeks to make sure senators and Utahns understand what is in the bill is certainly not asking too much."
Val Hale, president of the Utah Valley Chamber, noted that the United States reached its cap on visas for skilled workers known as H-1B visas within days of the application period opening and said immigration reform needs to make it easier for trained workers to stay in the country.
Hale said that the biggest concern that CEOs in Utah County have is finding and keeping the skilled workers they need to expand their businesses.
The leaders of the eight Utah chambers Salt Lake, Utah Valley, Sandy, Davis, Weber, Park City, Cache and St. George also said there needs to be a system in place that is functional for seasonal workers and brings those in the country illegally out of the shadows.
Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber, said the ski industry relies on seasonal workers who move from the Southern to Northern Hemisphere during the ski season.
And Cache Chamber of Commerce President Sandy Emile said farmers, ranchers and processors are suffering because of the uncertainty.
"Our agricultural industries are held hostage due to immigration-reform issues," she said. "We have crops that are rotting in the fields. We have meatpacking plants that are not working at full steam. … We have dairy plants that are not producing [at capacity]."
But Emile said it isn't just cheap labor that businesses are interested in, arguing that everyone benefits if the jobs are filled and the wages are fair.
Cherilyn Eagar, who has worked with the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said Utah's senators are not the problem. She said farmers are burdened by federal regulations and "powerful lobbyists who represent special interest groups like the chamber."
"They give away Utah citizens' jobs for cheaper labor while staying silent on life-altering ID theft," she said. "Immigration has become politicized at the peril of doing what's right. Now both parties are vying for votes. How can anyone consider another wave of amnesty when the federal government hasn't even enforced the border security provisions of [President Ronald] Reagan's 1986 amnesty law?"