Politics Threaten Utah Compact on Immigration

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder told a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee that the federal government would sue Utah if the state did not change a set of recently-passed immigration laws by 2013. In particular, Holder is seeking state legislative changes to the Utah’s guest worker program, or, he suggested, the Justice Department could sue Utah for enacting a state law on a federal issue.

This follows Utah’s passage last month of a package of immigration reform laws—including a guest worker program as well as an enforcement provision—openly supported by LDS Church officials and backed by a bit of muscle on Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill from LDS Church lobbyists.

Resisting strong anti-immigrant sentiment among the most conservative sectors of the Anglo Mormon Utah base, a broad coalition of religious, business and law enforcement officials laid the groundwork for reform when they devised the Utah Compact—a statement that acknowledged the contributions of immigrants and expressed support for immigrant families—last November.

The Utah Compact signaled the Church’s intent to break publicly and decisively with an all-enforcement anti-immigrant road-to-nowhere approach like Arizona’s SB 1070, authored by Arizona legislator Russell Pearce, who is Mormon.

The Compact, like other state immigration laws, also set the state of Utah on a collision course with the federal government. The framers of the Compact and Utah’s guest worker legislation hoped that taking a productive course of action would force the government to confront the necessity of comprehensive federal immigration reform.

Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff seemed ready for the coming challenge, bristling at criticism of the Utah laws from Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “For him to wag his finger at us is just infuriating,” said Shurtleff. “Put up or shut up, congressman.”

The LDS-backed Utah stance on immigration represents the adjustment of Mormon politics to the Church’s 21st-century global reality. Part of that reality is that Latino LDS Church leaders are sitting in Utah jails right now awaiting deportation with their families.