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Utah business leaders say Congress must solve immigration problems

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah business leaders want Congress to pass lasting immigration reform regardless of the program President Barack Obama outlines by executive order.

But several of them at a roundtable discussion Thursday said the president's action would hinder his ability to work with lawmakers.

"I don't think it helps because it creates friction with the new Congress that's Republican," said Jonathan Johnson, board chairman at Overstock.com.

Still, he said it could get the GOP moving more quickly.

"Sometimes a push in the wrong direction can get us in the right direction, but I think this is a push in the wrong direction," Johnson said.

The Partnership for a New American Economy hosted the hourlong discussion among company executives, an immigration attorney and Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. The organization includes more than 500 Republican, Democratic and independent mayors and business leaders who advocate for streamlining and modernizing the immigration system.

Obama intends to crack down on illegal immigration at the border; prioritize deporting felons, not families; and require certain undocumented immigrants to pass a criminal background check and pay their fair share of taxes as they register to temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

The president said he'll continue to work with Congress on a comprehensive bill that would replace his actions and fix the whole system.

Much of the roundtable discussion — which occurred before Obama revealed his plans — centered on what Obama might do and how it would impact future changes.

Jorge Dennis, president of Envirokleen, said the goal might be right, but he disagrees with the means to accomplish it.

"Unfortunately, this new Congress wasn't given the opportunity to try to create a dialog with him to be able to pass something through the right channels," Dennis said.

Salt Lake immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright said Obama's use of executive orders raises two questions: First, does he have that authority? And second, should he use it?

Every president since 1956 has taken some form of executive action on immigration, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush between 1987 and 1990.

That action benefited 1.5 million undocumented immigrants or 40 percent of the undocumented population at the time and was eventually approved by Congress in 1990. But both presidents acted independently of Congress by using their executive authority to shape what eventually became a permanent change to the immigration laws, Wheelwright said.

Right or wrong, the precedent is there, he said.

But whether Obama should use it is a political question with strong arguments on both sides that likely won't agree anytime soon, Wheelwright said.

Business leaders at the roundtable seemed to agree that immigration reform should be done in pieces and that securing the borders shouldn't be the first order of business.

Reforming the visa program to allow foreign college students to remain in the country to work after graduation and to bring in skilled workers, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math, should be a top priority.

The permit process for entering the country legally should also be simplified so it takes weeks or months, not years or decades. Also, there should be a path to allow an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants to come into compliance with the law.

"Once we do that, many of these other problems will go away," said Stan Lockhart, government affairs manager at IM Flash Technologies, adding that most people enter the United States seeking economic, political or religious freedom.

"I believe this is a moral issue," said Lockhart, a former Utah County Republican Party chairman. "We should be helping them get that legal status, not making it more difficult for them."

Though he favors border security, Lockhart said it gets used as a "red herring" to get the nation off the path it should be on.

"Yes, we support border security, but not at the expense of helping get people the freedom and liberty they're seeking," he said.

Ross Romero, Zions Bank vice president for community development, said it's important to remember the issue isn't just jobs but families, too.

"It's about how do we make sure our friends and neighbors are getting themselves right," he said.

Romero, a former Democratic state senator, said the Latino community wants a final resolution that could only come through congressional action.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy