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WASHINGTON - As the U.S. Senate takes up one of the most explosive debates of this election year - immigration reform - Utah's two Republican senators are still figuring out exactly where to jump into the fray.

Sen. Orrin Hatch did not attend a key Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday when four Republicans joined all eight Democrats in endorsing a liberal immigration policy by voting to give an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a chance to stay permanently in the United States.

Hatch, whose office said he was traveling, voted against the bill by proxy.

The Judiciary Committee's vote on the immigration bill came as hundreds of thousands of immigration advocates marched in Los Angeles and Houston on Sunday and Monday and rallies were held around the country to protest the get-tough legislation already approved by the House.

Hatch cast his proxy vote against the bill largely because it included a guest-worker program that he sees as amnesty, according to spokesman Peter Carr.

"We're a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation that respects the rule of law," Hatch said in a statement. "Our goal throughout this debate should be to find a way to balance those two traditional American values."

Hatch says he supports a "properly crafted" guest-worker program, but, generally, he wants the immigrants here to return home before applying for the program. He doesn't support several other proposals, such as a legislation allowing immigrants to remain in the United States and apply for a green card after six years.

The senator backs expanded fines for immigrants and businesses found violating the law, and he has proposed several amendments to increase those fines. Hatch also supports building a "strategic fence" on the borders and a verification process for employers that "actually works."

Utah's other senator, Bob Bennett, is not committing to a policy yet.

"I want to see how the whole debate shakes down before I sign on to any one specific" bill, Bennett told The Salt Lake Tribune when quizzed about which of the various reforms he supports.

No fewer than seven bills are before the Senate this week, with dozens of amendments being offered to change immigration laws or enforcement rules. The proposals range from a House bill passed last year to boost border security to legislation allowing undocumented workers to head home and reapply for guest worker status.

Bennett says the idea of immigrants leaving the United States in order to apply for a guest worker program is "not practical," and he supports a program that would allow those here to identify themselves and apply for a guest worker status that does not lead to citizenship.

"There's no question the present system is broken," Bennett says.

"The past solution to it, granting amnesty to everyone who is here and let them stay, doesn't work."

Employers want to do the right thing, Bennett added, and he supports a system that would allow employers to check the status of their workers without much hassle.

And setting up a guest worker program would help stem the flood of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally. "If the whole pressure against the border from the South is from job seekers, it makes it that much easier for the terrorists and drug dealers to get through,"Bennett says. But if you give immigrants a way to identify themselves and get some sort of guest worker status, that takes the pressure off the border. "Terrorists are not going to do that."

Bennett questions the idea of boosting the crime of illegal entry to make it a felony, and wants to ensure that if fines for employers are raised there is a process to ensure employers can verify immigrants' status first. "We better fix the system and then look at what are the crimes under the fixed system," Bennett said. "Right now, let's leave the penalties where they are."

Whatever policy emerges will have repercussions at home in Utah.

"As I see it, you've got the undocumented [workers] that are here who are going to be affected. You have the families of immigrants who will be affected; business will be affected; local governments are already being affected," says Tim Wheelwright, chairman of the Utah chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It's something that is going to have far-reaching impact for many Utahns."

There were about 90,000 undocumented immigrants in Utah, according to a 2004 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, the latest numbers available from the group.

Nationally, the center estimates there are about 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States.

But Utah's illegal population has definitely grown in the past two years and continues to increase, according to Pam Perlich, a senior research economist with the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"It's only gotten bigger because we're right in the middle of this tremendous construction boom," Perlich says.

Any changes to the immigration enforcement will hit Utah businesses, and by extension, Utah consumers, she says.

"You've got immigrants and undocumented workers in all of our industries, particularly service and hospitality industries and construction," Perlich said. "If you severely limit immigration to the country there will be labor shortages," and that leads to higher wages, which leads to a higher cost of living.

Taz Beisinger, director of the Utah Homebuilder's Association, said a good portion of the industry's Utah work force is made up of immigrants, though it's unclear how many are undocumented.

"No matter what decision they make it will affect us," Beisinger says about Congress.

All three of Utah's House members voted for legislation in December that heightens border security and strengthens immigration rules. But the Senate is debating much broader changes.


Hearst News Service contributed to this report.