SALT LAKE CITY — A group of mostly conservative Utahns delivered a message Tuesday to the state's members of Congress: Pass immigration reform now, not later.
"We realistically can't wait another year, another two years, another three years to address our issues with the workforce," said Todd Bingham, president and CEO of the Utah Manufacturers Association. "We already have a skills gap and a lack of skilled workers in both the state and the country."
Even at 4.5 percent unemployment in Utah, thousands of jobs in various industries go unfilled, he said.
Bingham joined a contingent representing Utah businesses, community groups and faiths who sat down with the state's four congressmen individually in Washington, D.C., to urge them to pass immigration reform in the interest of job creation and economic stability. They were among more than 600 leaders from about 40 states who met with lawmakers Tuesday.
The group included Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation; Jason Mathis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber and executive director of the Salt Lake Downtown Alliance; former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff; and Jesus Loya, director of the Park City Angel investor network.
"We were here today to say, 'Do the right thing. We'll back you up. We'll support you. … Don't listen to this shrill, right-wing propaganda that's just further trying to divide us.'"
Salt Lake City immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright didn't want to go so far as to say the message fell on deaf ears, but it was close. Some of members of the group, he said, wondered aloud how much good their visit did.
"No matter how compelling the argument might be … it just feels like we're swimming upstream, and the stream is pretty swift," Wheelwright said.
Bingham outlined five principles the group wants to see in comprehensive immigration reform, including raising the cap on work visas for high-skilled and agricultural workers, allowing companies to hire immigrant students who earn degrees in the U.S., and improving border security.
Shurtleff said it's frustrating and disappointing that there seems to be no hope for immigration reform in the House this year.
"My counter to that is the Senate did it," he said.
The Senate overhaul would tighten border security, expand visas and create a pathway to citizenship. Though several separate immigration bills have cleared House committees, Republican leaders have resisted bringing them to the floor for a vote.
Members of the Utah contingent say they don't care about providing a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. But they do want to give them a way to work.
"The individuals who are here in the country deserve immigration reform," Bingham said. "They may not want citizenship, but they do want legal working status so they can work for those companies that want to hire them. They can pay those taxes. They can come out of the shadows and not be fearful for what might happen to their families."
Shurtleff said Utah's congressional delegation supports the ideals the group is promoting, though any pathway to citizenship is a sticking point.
GOP House members fear backlash from far-right groups such as FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, Shurtleff said. They're telling Republicans in Congress that if they support an immigration bill, the groups will view it as amnesty, he said.
"That's why many Republican are scared," Shurtleff said, noting the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature passed a guest worker bill a few years ago. "We were here today to say, 'Do the right thing. We'll back you up. We'll support you. … Don't listen to this shrill, right-wing propaganda that's just further trying to divide us.'"
Contributing: Richard Piatt