By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
President Obama‘s aides were flabbergasted. Here was Mark Shurtleff, the conservative Republican attorney general of deeply red Utah, explaining how he and otherÂ GOP officials had approved a statewide version of the immigration measures that the president and his progressive allies have long sought.
“You sued us on healthcare,” Shurtleff recalls the aides saying during his meeting in Washington this month. “How is it you did something differently on immigration?”
The answer lies in how Utah expresses its conservative values â€” particularly the importance placed on family and business â€” and the influence of the Mormon Church.
Gov.Â Gary Herbert last week signed a bill that would give illegal immigrants who do not commit serious crimes and are working in Utah documents that, in the state’s eyes at least, make them legal residents. For the law to work, however, the Obama administration would have to permit Utah to make it legal to employ people who entered the United States illegally â€” a federal crime.
Even the law’s proponents acknowledge that’s an uphill battle.
But they contend that, in symbolism alone, the effort by Utah’s conservative government to offer a warm welcome to illegal immigrants can reshape the contentious debate over the issue. Washington has been paralyzed since 2006, whenÂ President George W. Bush was unable to persuade other Republicans to approve a national version of what Utah has enacted.
“Utah is proof that there is a true silent majority of decent, level-headed Americans,” said Paul Mero, head of the conservative Sutherland Institute here. “Conservative Republican members of Congress will be able to take a step back, not be so knee-jerk and caught up in the fear-mongering, and say, ‘Look at Utah, the reddest of the red.’ ”
Opponents of the measure are hoping to turn Utah into another sort of symbol. They’re organizing primary challenges against Herbert and state lawmakers who backed the bill. Activists are pushing county Republican Party committees to censure legislators who voted for it.
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