U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a critic of past immigration bills, says he now thinks it's time to fix the nation's broken immigration system.
The Utah Republican told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/11NQEI7 ) that while he views the bipartisan Senate proposal as a solid starting point, he isn't ready to support the deal.
But he suggested he's willing to support what he opposed under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and President George W. Bush in 2006: a path to citizenship.
"I think most people have come to the conclusion that we have 11 million people here who are not going to go back to their countries, many of whom are children who have never known their prior country," Hatch told The Tribune. "There's got to be a fair system that gives these people some opportunity to become good substantial citizens."
Hatch said the bipartisan proposal's 13-year citizenship track satisfies his longtime demand that unauthorized immigrants should not get citizenship faster than those who went through legal channels.
He criticized past immigration bills, including one that became law under Reagan that the senator said was heavy on offering citizenship but light on securing the border. But the new bipartisan proposal corrects that, Hatch said.
The group of four Democrats and four Republicans has proposed legislation to strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers' legal status, and provide an eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally.
The immigration system needs to be fixed for the economy, for his Mormon faith and for those here illegally, Hatch said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the Senate bill. But a top church official has said President Barack Obama's blueprint was in line with Mormon values, particularly in showing compassion to immigrants.
Arturo Morales-Llan, a Republican activist and Provo real estate agent who legally immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s, said Hatch's willingness to work on comprehensive immigration legislation shows he has "been in Washington too long. He is out of touch."
Congress should be looking out for U.S. citizens, not immigrants, in the current economy, Morales-Llan said, and should not take actions to legalize immigrants until the border is locked down and employers are checking the immigration status of each worker.
Offering legal status in conjunction with other changes, he warned, would only result in more people rushing to cross the border.
"I am opposed to anything that is comprehensive. I would like to see a piecemeal deal," Morales-Llan told The Tribune.
Hatch acknowledges many Republicans are not going to accept a sweeping immigration bill, but he believes the potential positives outweigh the drawbacks.
"I think if it is defeated, we won't do anything for another 10 years," he said. "And we'll just let what really is a festering sore continue to fester. I think we've got to face up to this."
In recent weeks, Hatch has taken part in a bipartisan effort spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to boost the number of migrant farm workers and to allow those in the U.S. illegally to gain citizenship within five years.