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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will hold a three-day conference on immigration reform in Salt Lake City beginning Wednesday, tackling state-initiated laws and how they impact local communities.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy with the USCCB, said Utah was chosen because of its "unique laws" related to state-based immigration reform as well as it being the home of The Utah Compact.

The compact, signed in November 2010 by political, religious and business leaders, was crafted as a foundation for a humane approach to immigration reform that focused on compassion, a recognition of economic contributions of immigrants and a desire for federal solutions. It has served as a template for compacts in Indiana, Maine and Iowa.

Appleby said Utah's approach made it a logical choice to host the conference, which is titled, "Immigration: A 50-State Issue, A Focus on State and Local Immigration Initiatives."

"Our hope is that we can start moving toward a consensus on the issue and get some sort of agreement on a federal level," Appleby said. "Our belief is the solution lies at the federal level and we need to find the political momentum toward that end."

He said the time was meant to have discussions on the issue prior to states starting their legislative sessions. Utah's session begins Jan. 23 and there is already a series of bills on immigration that are expected to be introduced — including an E-Verify bill putting teeth in a law requiring businesses to verify the legal status of employees and an attempt to replace the state's guest-worker law.

That law, HB116, was highly controversial and has been the subject of a repeal movement that gathered steam as delegates at the state Republican Convention voted for a resolution to repeal it.

The law doesn't take effect until 2013 and would require undocumented immigrants in the state who were here prior to May 2011 to get background checks and pay fines in exchange for being able to live and work in the state with proper documents.

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, plans to unveil a replacement bill for HB116, and the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration plans to hold a series of forums beginning Thursday in Salt Lake City to fuel the effort to eliminate the current law.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the coalition, said he's not surprised the Catholic bishops chose Utah to host their conference based on The Utah Compact — a document he denounced as "disingenuous."

"It doesn't even have the guts to use the word 'illegal' in it," Mortensen said. He also ripped HB116 as unconstitutional.

But Michael Clara, state chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly, said the bishops are simply recognizing Utah as a "leader in the nation for sensible immigration reform that is now modeled throughout the country."

Appleby said he hoped the conference would drive discourse on the immigration debate "in a way that addresses the humanity of immigrants rather than scapegoating them or making them less than human."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops consists of 456 active and retired bishops throughout the country. Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester is the former chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Migration. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez is the current chairman.

Twitter: @davemontero —

Catholic bishops gatherin SLC

Where • Raddison Hotel, 215 W. South Temple

Highlights • 6 p.m. Wednesday, dinner and panel on immigration laws and their impact on the church. Kicked off by Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester, a supporter of The Utah Compact. —

Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration

Where • Salt Lake City Library, fourth floor conference room

When • 7 p.m. Thursday

What • Explanation and discussion by panel, including Rep. Chris Herrod, about pitfalls of HB116

Also • Events also at Kimber Academy in Lehi on Jan. 17 and the American Foreign Legion in Bountiful on Jan. 24, both at 7 p.m.