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Put brakes on Mexican job seekers, Utahns say

Utahns support Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s efforts on immigration reform and believe he can influence the national debate — but most want him to make it tougher for workers to come to the state from Mexico, a new poll shows.

"It's a challenge crying out for a solution. I think everybody recognizes that," the governor said. "We've gone on too long without addressing immigration, and I think that's reflected in the numbers."

Utahns are interested in seeing Huntsman get involved in the immigration issue, according to the results of a new statewide poll taken last week for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates.

Seventy-one percent of the 400 Utahns surveyed said they favor the governor's efforts on the issue, and 62 percent said they believe he can influence the national debate on immigration. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Just last week, Huntsman persuaded members of the Western Governors' Association to let him draft a proposed stand on immigration for the organization, the first time they've agreed to tackle the issue.

The governor decided to take the issue on after meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City last summer. Huntsman was there to sell Mexican leaders on establishing an alliance between Utah and Mexico, but it was immigration that they wanted to talk about.

He hasn't said what position he'll propose the governors' association take, but his draft will offer solutions to protecting the nation's border with Mexico, some type of guest-worker program, and ways to improve the process by which immigrants can become citizens.

Utahns responding to the poll, though, were clear about what they want to see proposed. Asked if the governor should suggest making it easier or harder for workers to come to Utah from Mexico, 67 percent said he should try to make it harder for them.

Huntsman said whatever he comes up with for his fellow governors to consider at their next meeting in February, it won't be intended to make the process easier or harder. "I think it's neither," he said. "It's more orderly."

He said, though, it will likely end up being more difficult. "Earning your way toward a work visa and citizenship is a much harder process. It serves our labor needs, which are legitimate," the governor said.

The current immigration system isn't matching workers with opportunities, Huntsman said, calling it "highly unrealistic.

"It's an antiquated, Cold War process that hasn't been brought in line with the times."

Mike Sizer of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement was not surprised at the poll results. "What we're finding is people feel that many of these illegal people who are here are taking advantage of the system as it is now," Sizer said.

The public wants to see more enforcement along the nation's borders with Mexico, according to Sizer, who recently visited the area. "It's too easy to just walk across the border," he said. "People don't want that."

Joe Reyna, incoming chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said the demand for workers from Mexico continues to grow, especially as the U.S. population ages.

"There's no way to focus on a 'Berlin Wall' on the border to keep them out if the demand is still high for cheap labor," Reyna said, praising the governor for getting involved in the issue. "Even though it's not his responsibility, he's taking the initiative."

It will be up to Congress, of course, to make any changes to the nation's immigration policies. Huntsman is hoping that by agreeing on what needs to be done, the Western governors can have an impact on that decision.

"If the governors of the front-line states can't have some influence in the outcome of this policy, then heaven help us," Huntsman said. "We deal with this on a regular basis. We deal with it from a human standpoint. We deal with it from a financial standpoint."