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South Salt Lake • Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and an adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked mayors Wednesday to help refocus the debate and show how fixing immigration could boost the economy and create jobs.

"The immigration issue really is an economic issue," Shurtleff told a Utah League of Cities and Towns forum attended mostly by area mayors. That's partly because the economy still depends heavily on labor by undocumented workers, he said, and ways must be found to fill that need within the rule of law.

"Smarter immigration policies will lead to more American jobs," said Jeremy Robbins, the Bloomberg adviser who manages the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors pushing for reforms that could help the economy. It advocates passing some easy reforms now, such as raising quotas for some types of legal immigration.

For example, Robbins said giving more green cards to highly educated immigrants could spur jobs for others by helping companies that lack such key employees to expand. Similarly, he said, more visas should be made available to immigrants willing to invest here and start new businesses.

Even in farming, he said, "the system is fundamentally built right now on illegal farm workers." Deporting such workers would leave crops rotting in fields, he warned, and cut jobs among suppliers, transporters and processors — in the end, hurting consumers.

"You need a primary solution and deportation is just not one," he said "Something that people can get behind that makes sense is [one] that uses penalties, has a path to learn English. … I think that is the only viable solution that's out there."

Shurtleff said a focus shift to immigration as an economic issue might even help support Utah's new guest-worker law.

"I do believe that it is constitutional for this reason. It is similar to granting a driving-privilege card. By giving a guest-worker permit, we're not making a change in federal law," he said. "We're not making someone legal who is illegal. We're simply saying we want to bring you out of darkness" and stop any need of identity theft to work.

But, he noted, "it is against federal criminal law for an employer to hire an illegal alien. So we're looking to convince them [the Justice Department] to look at prosecutorial discretion," not to go after those who hire people with a Utah guest-worker card, and also to defer deportation of the workers.