Utah mayors, from cities to the sticks, urge immigration reform
19 Utah mayors tell Hatch and Lee in a letter that comprehensive reform is crucial to state's economy.
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Nineteen Utah mayors, from Park City to Beaver to Blanding, are calling for comprehensive immigration reform, arguing an immigrant workforce is critical to the state's technology, agriculture and tourism sectors.

"The impact of our immigration laws are significant on Utah's economy," a letter sent Monday to Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee reads. "We are all concerned that if substantial reform does not happen soon, our cities will be worse off."

The bipartisan "Gang of Eight" bill, conditionally supported by Hatch but not by Lee, is scheduled to hit the Senate floor next week.

"If the two of you become leaders on this important issue," the letter continues, "we are confident that bipartisan reform will fall into place."

The signature list includes mayors from rural towns such as Coalville and Ephraim to major population centers including St. George and Salt Lake County. It also runs the political pendulum from liberal mayors like Midvale's JoAnn Seghini and Salt Lake City's Ralph Becker to conservative West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder.

"It is important that we create a viable guest worker program so that technology companies, farms, hotels, and other industries in Utah can more easily find temporary workers to fill specific employment needs," Winder writes. "We need real and substantial immigration reform, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also the best action for our economy and our families."

In response, Lee says "I could not agree more," before calling instead for a step-by-step approach.

"I firmly believe that we can achieve real comprehensive reform without having to pass another 1,000-page bill full of loopholes, carve-outs and unintended consequences," Lee says in a statement. "In fact, the only way to guarantee successful reform of the entire system, and ensure we are not repeating the mistakes of the past, is through a series of incremental steps that ensure the foundational pieces — like border security and an effective entry-exit system — are done properly."

Lee notes he has sponsored separate measures and amendments to the current bill that address high-skilled immigration, along with agricultural and seasonal workers, and new incentives for tourism.

The mayors argue some of the state's top minds, educated in Utah, are unable to flourish in Utah's technology industry because they are sent home upon graduation. "This makes absolutely no sense," the letter reads.

Likewise, farmers are forced to leave part of their crops in their fields due to lack of available labor. With a more flexible work visa program, the mayors insist, Utah farms could thrive once again.

Finally, the local leaders note many of Utah's best restaurants and resorts sit at half-capacity — even during the busiest season — because of a lack of workers.

Before offering his support in the Judiciary Committee, Hatch pushed amendments to increase the number of visas for high-tech immigrant employees. He has urged agricultural reform to allow more flexibility for seasonal workers.

Considered a linchpin in the Senate's pursuit of 70 votes — a key for potential House Republican support — Hatch has yet to fully endorse the bill.

djensen@sltrib.com

Twitter: @derekpjensen