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From Welcome to Wary in Utah

The raging immigration debate has drowned out nuanced positions even in this conservative state, which had made room for illegal newcomers.

April 30, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

PROVO, Utah — Four years ago, U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon told the audience at a Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund dinner: "We love immigrants in Utah. We don't make distinctions between legal and illegal."

Two weeks ago, the Utah Republican sent a video to party activists saying that he was tough on illegal immigration and that the nation had to secure its borders.

What a difference a few years make in the contentious world of immigration politics.

A prominent champion of immigrant rights in Washington, Cannon says he hasn't changed his position. Instead, he has repackaged it in reaction to a nationwide backlash against illegal immigration.

The raging debate on immigration reform has drowned out nuanced positions even in Utah, a conservative but paradoxically immigrant-friendly state.

Cannon faces a reelection challenge from two Republicans who circulated a tape of the speech he gave to the Legal Defense Fund.

"Right now," he said, "we're emphasizing enforcement."

Other Republican politicians have adopted strategies similar to Cannon's. In December, the House passed a bill that calls for a fence to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border and that would make every illegal immigrant in the U.S. a felon. Utah's delegation -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- supported the bill. Cannon says he voted for the law only after he was promised it would be watered down in conference committee.

The Senate this month came close to passing a more welcoming bill that would create a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Orrin Hatch, Utah's senior senator who once backed a measure that would have legalized undocumented immigrants who excel in college, opposed the legislation. Hatch now says border security is the top priority.

Republicans -- who control Congress -- are struggling to reconcile the sharp divisions. But analysts say mounting frustration among conservative voters may make that impossible.

"The Republicans who are running for Congress around the country are all sounding the security mantra more than the comprehensive guest-worker one," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst in Washington. "The issue is so explosive that any member who's trying to take a measured and balanced position is likely to rile up part of his base."

The moderates' shift in rhetoric "puts a finger, a pinkie on the scale" and tilts the debate in Congress away from guest-worker programs and closer to stalemate, Rothenberg said.

Utah, the state with the highest percentage of GOP voters, is by some measures the most welcoming to illegal immigrants. Latinos accounted for 9% of Utah's 2.2 million residents in 2000, according to census figures. By all estimates, the Latino population has continued to climb.

Utah was among the first in the nation to give illegal immigrants licenses that allowed them to drive, buy insurance and travel without fear of violating the law and to charge them the same tuition at public colleges as legal residents.

But this year, legislators partially repealed the driver's license law. Undocumented immigrants can now get a card that allows them to operate a vehicle, but does not serve as official government identification and cannot be used to board airplanes.

"The people of Utah are not at all happy about what's going on," said Bob Wren a founder of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement. "You can just hear what Chris Cannon is saying nowadays as opposed to what he was talking about two years ago."

Cannon now budgets an hour in his constituent forums to explain the nuances of his longtime position -- that a combination of securing the borders and a guest-worker program would transform an influx of illegal immigrants into an orderly procession of foreigners eager to work legally in the U.S. He says it's not disingenuous to focus on border protection because he's long argued that controlling the influx of migrants is key to a workable immigration policy.

At a recent forum, Cannon sat on a folding chair in the living room of an Eastern Provo ranch house as nine GOP activists questioned him about illegal immigrants.

"It sounds like you're in favor of giving amnesty to the ones who are here now," said Sharon Memmott, a homemaker.

Cannon said he wasn't in favor of amnesty, but of allowing law-abiding people who are working to continue to contribute to the economy -- a stance that Memmott said she supported. "I've never been some kind of lefty softy on this issue," Cannon said.

Utah's elections law allows any candidate garnering 60% of the delegates' votes at the state party convention to win the nomination without a primary. So Cannon and his challengers -- former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook and real estate developer John Jacob -- have been wooing the district's 1,000 delegates, party activists who tend to be even more conservative than the district's voters. The candidate who secures the GOP nomination is expected to win the seat in November.

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