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John Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City's Catholic Archdiocese, said Wednesday he was "sad" to hear Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accept the endorsement of the key architect for several state-based enforcement-only immigration laws.
Wester made the remark after giving the keynote speech at the opening session of three-day U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops immigration conference at the Radisson Hotel.
"We need leadership on immigration reform, and we've seen these state-based approaches don't work," Wester said. "We can't just have people put their finger up in the wind to see which way it's blowing."
Romney touted the endorsement of Kris Kobach on Wednesday as he headed into the upcoming South Carolina primary.
Kobach, Kansas' secretary of state, helped craft Arizona's SB1070 enforcement-only law as well as South Carolina's law, and he has been at the forefront of the anti-immigration movement.
"I'm so proud to earn Kris' support," Romney said in his statement. "Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country. We need more conservative leaders like Kris willing to stand up for the rule of law."
Wester, in his 30-minute speech to a packed room of about 300 clergy and lay members of the Catholic Church, challenged state lawmakers to stop passing unenforceable laws and to instead pass a resolution urging Utah's congressional delegation to pass "humane," comprehensive reform.
"A system of 50 state laws which supplant federal authority is untenable," Wester said. "I hope the Supreme Court agrees with this assessment in the Arizona case. In this regard, I call upon our own Legislature in Utah soon to convene to pass a resolution to direct our Utah congressional delegation to lead the way forward in Congress toward humane reform of our laws."
But a Pew Research survey released Wednesday shows religious communities aren't necessarily of one mind when it comes to immigration reform.
Members of the LDS Church, according to the study, were almost evenly split 41-45 on whether immigrants either burden the country or strengthen the country. The study found Protestants saw immigrants as a burden by a 52-37 mark while Catholics saw them as a strength by a 55-35 margin.
Salt Lake City was chosen to host the three-day conference on immigration because of The Utah Compact and the Legislature's unique approach to addressing reform in the last session with the passage of an enforcement-only law, a guest worker law and migrant worker exchange law with Mexico.
The Compact, signed more than a year ago by religious, political and businesses leaders, was intended as a guiding document that stressed federal solutions, compassion and the economic contributions of immigrants. It has been replicated in several states, including Iowa and Indiana, and served as the inspiration for Utah's raft of immigration bills.
Wester opposed both Utah's enforcement-only law currently tied up in federal court and the guest-worker law the subject of a bitter divide in Utah's Republican Party because he said they were both unconstitutional and believed reform must happen at the federal level.
Kevin Appleby, USCCB director of migration policy, said there are two key events happening this year that could force the issue.
In his introduction of Wester, Appleby said the presidential election "will determine where Congress and the federal government goes on the issue," and said the expected ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court this spring on Arizona's enforcement-only law, SB1070, "would determine the debate on immigration for the next generation."
But Wester said federal inaction is forcing states to have debates and pass legislation at the local level.
In Utah, with its legislative session set to start on Jan. 23, there are already immigration bills being readied for introduction including one by Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, that would alter the guest-worker law, and another by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, to penalize companies for hiring undocumented immigrants.