BRIGHAM CITY -- Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, sees comprehensive immigration reform as a possibility this congressional session, though he admits there are a couple of thorny issues to iron out before it will become a reality.
Bishop held an hour-long meeting Monday with Chamber of Commerce leaders from Cache County, Brigham City, Ogden/Weber and the Davis County chambers in his Brigham City office and said he thinks it's possible Congress could pass immigration reform before 2014.
"I find the voices less shrill than before. Five or six years ago there would have been no way in hell. I don't hear the language as more shrill, I hear it as more accommodating than before," Bishop said of the current mood in Congress to deal with the issue.
The Senate has already passed an immigration reform measure and there are currently five separate bills pending in the House, dealing with different aspects of immigration.
The former high school history teacher said he cannot support the Senate bill as currently written. He described it as being worse than the status quo, but said most immigration issues can be easily addressed, especially visas, and dealing with the children of undocumented workers. He said the most pressing issue is securing the border.
"If there is border security first, then I'm willing to go along with the rest of the stuff. That is the number one key," Bishop said.
As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, Bishop has had a hand in crafting one of the bills to give Homeland Security the right to conduct any activity or construct any facility required to secure the border. It would give Border Patrol and Customs agents the right to suspend any federal law on land managed by the departments of Interior and Agriculture.
Bishop maintains border security problems are generated more by the inability of federal agencies to accommodate patrolling along the border. He said the most egregious problems occur on federal lands in Arizona.
By contrast, Texas, with state and private land which is accessible to agents, has fewer problems with border intrusions.
He said the border near Tucson is especially porous and is heavily used as a gateway for drugs, cartels and human trafficking.
"Having more bodies on the border is not the issue. Having more hardware is not the issue ... We don't need more money, more trinkets, but access east and west," Bishop said.
Attorney Timothy Wheelwright of Durham, Jones & Pinegar of Salt Lake has been dealing with immigration issue for 17 years. He pointed out the Senate bill setting up e-verify rules for documented workers presents potential problems for employers.
He said a Davis County company using e-verify to ensure its employees were legal to work in the United States was fined because they filled out federal forms improperly.
Bishop said House members are already tackling the potential problems with e-verify. He said unless current problems with the electronic system are ironed out, that phase of immigration reform will not pass.
The bigger issue, according to the six-term congressman, is addressing the path to citizenship or potential amnesty for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. He said the divide on the issue is not Republican versus Democrat but the Senate versus the House.
"It's a chamber issue, not a political issue. The Senate did a bill and what they did was get something in the bill everyone liked. There are not the votes in the House to pass the Senate bill," he said.
Bishop said the House will be slow and methodical in addressing specific areas of immigration reform and he suggested the issue could pick up momentum as some of the "easy stuff" on the issue is addressed.
"If you can reduce anger and anxiety, people then are willing to do some compromising later on," Bishop said.
Wheelwright expressed concern the mid-term elections could impact the issue, but Bishop said he doesn't think that will be a factor.
Nathan Rich of the Davis County Chamber wondered what local leaders could do to influence change at the state and local level on any potential reform plan.
Bishop said the question goes to the heart of any potential reform. He envisions a way states and the federal government can partner to address enforcement as well as documentation issues. He said states may have to work out compacts to deal with the issue.