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Utah business leaders say immigration reform needed but wary of Obama actions


SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah business leaders said Thursday that the country's immigration system needs to be fixed, but President Barack Obama's plans will hamper any permanent solutions from Congress.

"I don't think it helps because it's going to create friction with the new Congress that's Republican," board chairman Jonathan Johnson said. "While I think it's probably the wrong thing for him to do, there's a possibility it starts a dialogue and pushes the Republicans to move more quickly."

Johnson and other business leaders discussed the issue at the Salt Lake City headquarters of hours before Obama's immigration announcement on Thursday night. Obama is expected to announce that he's sidestepping Congress in order to temporarily shield from deportation up to 5 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Stan Lockhart, a longtime Republican activist and lobbyist for tech company IM Flash, said he expects he'd see a lot in Obama's plan business leaders would agree with, but the president should work to have it passed by Congress instead of using executive powers.

Ross Romero, a former Democratic state lawmaker and vice president at Zions Bank, said Obama's actions might not have been needed if the Republican controlled U.S. House had considered comprehensive immigration legislation that the Senate passed last year.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who voted for that legislation, said he's concerned that anyone living in the country illegally will be allowed to "jump ahead" of those wanting to immigrate who have followed the law.

Hatch and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, both Republicans, spoke to the business group via teleconference from Washington, D.C.

Lee, who opposed the Senate immigration bill last year, said he thinks Congress needs to tackle the issue in pieces, starting by securing the border and addressing worker visas, Lee said.

Both senators said they think Obama's actions are beyond the constitutional powers of the president.

Maria Berenice Cruz is among Utah immigrants ecstatic about Obama's action. The 41-year-old mother of three and her husband are in line to get work permits because their children are U.S. citizens.

Most importantly, Cruz said, it takes away the fear of being deported. Cruz, of Nayarit, Mexico, has lived in the United States for more than two decades. "It's a dream come true that I'm always going to be able to stay with my children, supporting them," Cruz said in Spanish.

Cruz was scheduled to be among about 100 people at a watch party Thursday evening in Salt Lake City to listen to Obama's historic announcement. The event is being hosted by Centro Civico Mexicano, one of Utah's largest Latino support groups.

The immigrant and Latino community is very excited about the announcement, said Brandy Farmer, president of the board of directors for Centro Civico Mexicano.

"It's been a long wait for them," Farmer said. "They had lost faith that anything was ever going to happen. They're really grateful to President Obama that he has stepped up on a promise."

It's unknown how many immigrants in Utah will become eligible for work permits. There are an estimated 100,000 immigrants without legal permission living in Utah, a new report from the Pew Research Center shows.

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