A number of Republican officials and conservatives have responded to Obama’s immigration announcement by attacking it on process grounds, arguing that the decision to circumvent Congress was an abuse of power, an affront to democracy, and even unconstitutional — and could encourage further lawbreaking.

But in an interview with me just now, Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s conservative Republican attorney general, dismissed those objections, arguing the move was perfectly within Obama’s powers, good law enforcement policy, and even a “conservative” solution.

“This is clearly within the president’s power,” Shurtleff said. “I was pleased when the president announced it.”

Shurtleff, a Mitt Romney supporter who is a diehard conservative on many other issues, is perhaps the nation’s most prominent Republican staking out an alternative to the GOP’s hard line on immigration. His support for the president’s policy represents a larger split within the party, between those who see Arizona as a model for the nation and those who want the party to adjust to demographic (and related political) realities with another approach.

Republicans and conservatives have argued either that Obama did this by executive order or more broadly that ignoring Congress represents dictatorial rule by fiat. But Shurtleff rejected that view, noting that this decision was not made via executive order and that the administration has the discretion to decide whom to prosecute.

“Law enforcement makes decisions based on the resources available to them — until Congress acts, we’ll be left with too many people to deport,” Shurtleff said. “The administration is saying, `Here’s a group we could be spending our resources going after, but why? They’re Americans, they see themselves as Americans, they love this country.’”

Shurtleff added that the decision, by allowing children brought here illegally to go to school and work, could encourage them to stay out of gangs — which he called a “conservative” goal. He dismissed the claim that this would encourage further illegal immigration, noting that the president’s plan has a cutoff — you are only eligible if you came here before you turned 16 and are younger than 30, and have been in the country for at least five continuous years.

Asked to respond to the case made by some that this constitutes “amnesty” because it gives illegal immigrants the legal status they were trying to steal, he rejected it.

“You’re not giving [legal status] to the parents who came here,” Shurtleff said. “You’re giving it to the child who was brought here. That child didn’t get to choose.”