By JOSH LOFTIN
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah Republicans who backed a comprehensive immigration reform package during this year's legislative session are facing a backlash from the conservative base of their own party.
Delegates at the party's state convention on Saturday will vote on a resolution calling for the repeal of House Bill 116, which authorized a guest worker program. The resolution has already been passed by Republicans in three of the state's largest counties despite efforts by party insiders, business leaders and churches to halt it.
The bill, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Gary Herbert, violates the U.S. Constitution and isn't in line with national and state party platforms, said Utah County Republican delegate Keri Witte, who is leading the repeal effort.
"Utah prides itself for being a conservative state, but this is a very liberal bill," Witte said. "If this could pass in Utah, it could pass anywhere."
The guest worker program, passed as part of a package of immigration bills, will allow illegal immigrants to live and work in Utah if they register with the state and pay a fee. It doesn't take effect until 2013.
Legislators supporting the immigration package said HB116 was a compassionate counter-balance to a strict enforcement bill - modeled on Arizona's controversial 2010 law - that would require police to detain anybody arrested for a serious crime who cannot prove their legal presence in the U.S. The Utah law has been put on hold by a federal judge.
Witte sponsored a party resolution in in Utah County that calls for the repeal of the guest worker bill. GOP delegates in Washington County in southern Utah and in the state's most populous county, Salt Lake, have also approved the resolution.
But fighting the resolution is a well-organized group that includes the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute, legislative leaders and other party leaders. In support of the bill, delegates received an email from former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who said it should stand because it would help get the attention of federal officials.
"By holding people and businesses accountable for their actions, HB 116 sets a high standard for the federal government to follow in righting the illegal immigration wrongs," he said in the email.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement last week encouraging people to support immigration laws that take into account the human and economic impacts of immigration enforcement. States should make sure illegal immigrants are given a chance to "square" themselves with the law to avoid deportation, the church said.
One of the staunchest legislative opponents to HB116, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said the delegate uprising has evolved from outright opposition to the guest worker program to a "repeal and replace" mentality. That is a reflection of the overall willingness among Republicans to pass laws that encourage immigration without rewarding those who break the law.
He emphasized that the push is not simply to deport specific groups of people, but to make it easier for people to come into the country legally.
"I know the delegates feel frustrated that they debate the platform, and then it's ignored," Herrod said. "But for all of the pain it's causing, I hope there will some positive changes."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)