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Washington • The road leading to a new national immigration policy will wind its way through the states — and it will be bumpy, confusing and most likely long, say two Utah leaders active in the debate.

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, participated in a panel discussion Tuesday at the National Press Club, arguing that states will continue to pass varying, and even contradictory, immigration laws, ultimately forcing the federal government to set a new national norm.

Bramble called it "the tipping point" and said the 1,400 state bills introduced last year are just the beginning. Some states require companies to use the "E-Verify" program to ensure potential employees are in the U.S. legally. Others ban the practice, making it difficult for companies operating across state lines to comply.

Utah requires E-Verify use. The measure is one in a series of immigration laws the state passed recently, along with a tough enforcement bill and a hotly disputed guest-worker provision. That guest-worker measure, championed by Shurtleff and Bramble, caught the eye of ImmigrationWorks USA, which sponsored Tuesday's event, pairing the Utahns with business leaders from Arizona and Indiana. The organization comprises business-centric groups seeking national immigration reform, including an easier process to bring workers in from other countries.

Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks, called the Utah officials "pragmatic Republicans" and praised them for the "courage" it takes to confront more-hard-line conservatives pushing legislation similar to Arizona's landmark enforcement law.

Shurtleff said that the Utah Legislature was able to pass the bills and withstand the criticism that followed only because of outside support from business leaders and the state's predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though he added the debate is far from over.

"Senator Bramble has one big target on his back right now," he told the crowd.

Utah tea party groups have zeroed in on Bramble for his role in the legislative debate, but the state senator says he plans to campaign on the same message that he shared Tuesday. He argued that the federal government has set up a situation in which it requires states to cover most of the costs of illegal immigration, from health care to education, without giving them the tools to effectively manage that population.

"If we can't deport individuals from our state and if we can't stop them from coming into our state," Bramble said, "then, because of the costs associated with that, there has to be a rational approach to dealing with it."

As with immigration laws in other states, the U.S. Justice Department is considering a challenge to Utah's measures based on constitutional grounds, arguing that immigration is a federal issue. Shurtleff said he met with Justice officials while in Washington to discuss the matter. He said he is prepared to defend the state's guest-worker law, which would require a federal waiver to take effect.

"I think we can win that lawsuit, frankly," he said.

Twitter: @mattcanham