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SPANISH FORK — To cheers, jeers and rowdy applause, Utah County Republicans approved a resolution to repeal the controversial HB116 — the guest worker immigration bill — by a vote of 443 to 365.
HB116, passed by the Utah Legislature in its 2011 general session, creates an enforcement mechanism and requires employers to verify the immigration status of employees they hire.
Supporters say the resolution should send a message to the Republican Party faithful that the immigration bill is bad public policy.
Afterward, Gov. Gary Herbert said he was disappointed, but said delegates have the right to vote their opinion and it's all part of "the process."
Utah County's debate over HB116 was the highlight of Saturday's convention where hundreds of people turned out at Maple Mountain High School.
Chairman of the Utah Republican Party Thomas Wright said the immigration issue is "hotly contested" in Utah. The endorsement of the resolution sends a "great message that the party is willing to debate the issue. It is what it is."
The law, which will take effect in July 2013, sets up a process for undocumented immigrants living in Utah before May 11, 2011, to obtain a guest worker permit. Applicants would be fined $2,500 — $1,000 for overstaying a visa — for entering the country illegally. The program requires federal approval.
Utah County becomes the latest county to jump on the anti-HB116 bandwagon, following the sentiment of Salt Lake County. Beaver, Box Elder, Davis, Tooele and Iron counties have rejected the resolution, however, and it is on the agenda of Sanpete County Saturday night.
Wright said rather than demonstrating a divide among the Utah GOP, Saturday's vote is an example of the party taking proactive steps to address a serious issue facing the state.
"I don't see the other party doing that," Wright said.
In debates prior to the vote, former Utah County GOP chairman Steve Shallenberger urged his colleagues to reject the nonbinding resolution.
"The mass majority (of illegal aliens) are good people," Shallenberger said, stressing that HB116 simply sets up an orderly, legal system that otherwise doesn't exist because of failed federal action.
"The federal government has dodged this issue for 20, 30 years," he said.
Arturo Morales, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has become a poster child in the movement against HB116, received a resounding round of applause after he urged passage of the resolution.
It is a very divisive issue. There are strong feelings on both sides.
He said the so-called Utah "solution" to the immigration issue with HB116 is nothing more than 'Utah confusion.' This is not the end of the world if we repeal it. But is the end of Utah as the rule of law as we know it," should the measure stay in place.
Delegate Randy Herbert was at the far end of the high school auditorium leaning against the wall when Morales spoke, nodding his support.
"This is a chance for the little people to be heard," Herbert said. "It sends a strong message to repeal HB116."
Next to him, delegate Kelly Roundy had a different opinion.
"You have to do something," he said, explaining his support the law. "In a way it (HB116) is a scare tactic — it says there are easier states to go to."
Rep. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, expressed the same sentiment.
"If not 116, then what? What is a practical solution? asked Bramble. "Nobody is putting forward a rational solution to the immigration problem."
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, said the Saturday vote is a reflection of the passionate feelings over immigration and the thumbs-down vote is an example of delegates getting a chance to weigh in on the controversy.
"It is a very divisive issue," she said. "There are strong feelings on both sides."
Gov. Herbert addressed the delegates afterward and dismissed any notion that HB116 has somehow divided the GOP party in Utah.
"We will work together on this."