With the victory Saturday in the Utah County GOP convention of an anti-HB116 resolution, it appears that conservative Utah legislators and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will have some explaining to do on the emotional issue of illegal immigration.
Herbert and others who addressed the county convention were applauded and jeered as the delegates voted in favor of repealing HB116 by a close 443-365 tally, local media reports said.
HB116 sets up a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants starting in July 2013.
It would allow a non-citizen to pay a $2,500 fine if they had come into the U.S. illegally – a $1,000 fine if they had overstayed their legal visa – pay all due taxes and make other amends and in return they could get a legal work permit.
HB116 requires a federal government waiver, which may not come.
While opponents loudly claim HB116 is unconstitutional, supporters say it meets the general goals of the Utah Compact – a five-point “compassionate” approach to illegal immigration that has the support of various church and civic groups. You can read it here.
In a way, Saturday’s vote is a message to leaders of the LDS Church that at least in conservative Utah County – where the delegates are by far a majority of Mormon faithful – that a more “compassionate” approach to illegal immigration takes a back seat to a more “legal” stand.
The next big test of the repeal-HB116 movement will be the Washington County GOP convention on June 4 and the state GOP convention on June 18.
The repeal resolution earlier passed the Salt Lake County GOP convention (although the bill’s supporters note many delegates had left the hall by the time the vote took place.)
It has failed in Republican conventions in Weber, Davis, Iron, Box Elder, Beaver and Tooele counties; and for various reasons failed to come to a vote on a number of others.
Some other county GOP parties have not yet met this spring.
Supporters of HB116 – including Herbert, a former Utah County commissioner who signed by bill – believe the package of illegal immigration bills passed by the 2011 Legislature is a reasonable approach.
Utah has been praised nationally for the Legislature’s comprehensive manner to the tough problem. You can read HB116 here.
And when leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out with a re-statement of their support for the Utah Compact and the Legislature’s actions, it was reasonably concluded that the anti-HB116 movement inside county GOP conventions would stall.
But that wasn’t the case Saturday in Utah County – one of the most conservative and Mormon in Utah.
In preparation for Saturday’s vote, former Utah County and state GOP chairman Stan Lockhart – husband of Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo – sent out an email to Utah County GOP delegates arguing why the repeal HB116 resolution should be defeated in the convention.
The Deseret News, the statewide daily owned by the LDS Church, ran a long editorial asking Utah County delegates to defeat the resolution.
The editorial took the rare approach of reminding readers that the newspaper was owned by the LDS Church (which is generally known, but not quoted in editorials) and re-iterated to the delegates – many of whom are Mormons – that church leaders support the immigration package passed by lawmakers, including HB116.
The church’s stand, combined with the emotional disagreement over HB116 in GOP ranks, could well be a political opening in 2012 for Mormon Democrats, political independents and moderate Republicans – a group that has not often found church leaders on their same philosophical side.
In any case, the HB116 issue is clearly taking on church/political implications.
Saturday, some GOP delegates were wearing buttons, reported the local media, that said: “I could be a heretic,” a perhaps light-hearted jab at themselves for disagreeing with a stand by their church leaders.
Of course, HB116 and it’s guest worker program, is not doctrine by the LDS Church, and thus faithful members can disagree with the church on the issue and be in no danger of either being questioned about it by their local lay church leaders, their good standing membership put at risk, or have endangered their recommends to the LDS temples.
Still, GOP LDS members are not used to being in disagreement with their church leaders on any political or moral issue.
Where does HB116 go from here?
Various polls show that most Utahns like the illegal immigration package lawmakers’ past.
But it is also clear that a goodly number of GOP conservative rank-and-file don’t like the bill. Some just shout “amnesty,” while others go a bit deeper into the reasons for their dislike.
And Utah’s four GOP U.S. House and Senate members don’t like HB116, either.
Herbert says since the bill doesn’t take effect until July 2013, the new law can be massaged and refined in both the 2012 and 2013 general legislative sessions.
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, is a Mormon who hopes that the passage of HB116 is “indicative of a moderate interest in the Legislature” showing itself.
“It is part of a comprehensive solution” to illegal immigration, said McAdams on Sunday. “It is what the majority of Utahns want – polling has shown.”
While HB166 is not perfect, it is a good starting place for further discussions, said McAdams.
No doubt there will be a bill introduced to repeal HB116 – about half of the GOP members in the state House and Senate voted against HB116 – and it only passed because of needed Democratic votes in both bodies.
Even with LDS Church support, it is still dicey whether legislative Republicans and Herbert can hold together the coalition of conservative and moderate GOP lawmakers and Democrats.
The greatest fear of any Republican legislator is a challenge from his or her political right.
And some of those challenges may well come in 2012. The House and Senate county and state convention GOP delegates will get first shot at the incumbents Republicans who voted for HB116. You can see the votes in the House and Senate here.
“Yes, I’ve heard whisperings” that some GOP lawmakers who supported HB116 are worried about being challenged next year by conservatives who oppose the measure, said McAdams.
Even though HB116 has support from leaders of the LDS Church and other local religions. Even though it is backed by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who see the need for a save and secure workforce.
Even though the local media is universally in favor of it.
The hard right wing of the Utah Republican Party is a difficult group to oppose.
Who knows what kinds of amendments can be made to salve the wounded HB116-haters.
But count on the main sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, one of the most conservative lawmakers, and Senate sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who used to be one of the right’s darlings, to be looking for compromises in the light of the delegate votes in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
And be prepared for another full-court press by the media, the GOP establishment and others as the state GOP convention approaches June 18.
Meanwhile, says McAdams, it is nice to see stands taken by his own church leaders meet up so well with what most legislators – Republicans and Democrats – support.
And McAdams doesn’t see any conflicts between being a good Mormon and supporting “reasonable” illegal immigration reform.
“The church takes the positions it does for reasons that aren’t exclusively political. Then individuals have to decide” how to react to those stands, said McAdams.
Church leaders “have good reasons for those positions” on the illegal immigration package of bills.
“Now individuals have to decide how they fit into line with our beliefs and conscience.”
“On a personal level, I’m pleased to see the church’s stand here – it is what we should be doing out of respect for families and the sense of community.”