The wacky world of immigration


I love the printed word, love having something informative and solid and paper at ready in my hands when I recline on my patio with a nice IPA. But as a magazine writer, I have to say: There are serious drawbacks to being constrained by a tight print schedule. Sometimes, right after your story goes to press and a week before it's actually in anyone's mailbox, it's already outdated. I mean, just look at how fast news on immigration reform has been churning out.

Which is why I will now stop whining and exploit the intertubes to both update and augment a story of mine that you'll find in the latest oh-so-delectable print version of High Country News.

Here's the quick skinny: Utah, it turns out, is a pretty surprising place when it comes to immigration policy. It's one of the nation's most Republican and socially conservative states. And yet, it doesn't fall in with right-wing hardliners' cries for rooting out and deporting -- regardless of the social or economic consequences -- everyone who's come to this country illegally.  In fact, the state is very consciously trying NOT to be another Arizona, where last year the Legislature passed a law that essentially asked police to demand citizenship papers from anyone they had "reasonable" cause to suspect was in the country illegally. Many immigrant advocates worried the measure would just lead to racial profiling, marginalizing legitimate citizens in the process. Which is among the reasons why it's now tied up in federal court (plus, of course, the fact that the constitution places immigration policy under the authority of the federal government).Last fall, as states like Alabama seemed to be rushing to outdo Arizona with draconian and likely unconstitutional measures of their own, a number of Utah's religious, business and political leaders came together to advocate a more humane approach, expressed  through a simple and elegant document called the Utah Compact. The principles it espoused helped shape a set of immigration reform laws: a Republican-born-and-bred state guest worker bill and a toned-down Arizona-style enforcement bill, both of which passed in March. They are likely as unconstitutional as the others because the federal government has ultimate authority over immigration, but the guest worker bill in particular was meant to steer the terms of the state and national debate in a more realistic and less xenophobic direction.

Since my article exploring all that went to print, a number of new developments have emerged which suggest the discussion is indeed getting more tempered. New York, Massachusetts and Illinois have all promised to pull out of the Obama Administration's Secure Communities Program -- through which an arrested person's immigration status can be checked -- because it was resulting in too many deportations of folks who weren't serious criminals. Soon after, the administration announced reforms that would focus limited federal immigration enforcement dollars on those who directly threaten public safety, national security, etc., rather than those with clean records who have been keeping their noses to the ground working or getting an education (pdf). And last week, Senate Democrats announced a comprehensive immigration reform bill which both increases enforcement and provides a path to citizenship. Still, a similar measure failed in 2007 despite Democratic control of both houses, and the Dems now control only the Senate.

Meanwhile, immigration is becoming a more and more divisive issue within the Republican Party. The same week the Secure Communities reforms were announced, activists from Citizens for a Better Arizona succeeded in ratifying more than enough signatures from a deeply Republican district to launch a recall campaign against its senator: Arizona's Senate President, Russell Pearce. Recall proponents reportedly say they're doing it because the Republican has made the state look bad, has cut critical programs like education and has a nasty habit of presenting distracting bills that border on the absurd. But it's hard to ignore the fact that Pearce is the lawmaker behind the previously mentioned Arizona immigration law, as well as a slew of other anti-immigrant laws, and immigration enforcement is among his major talking points. Pearce has won past elections by wide margins, so it's difficult to tell what the outcome of the recall will be. His supporters are already using it as a rallying cry to raise money on his behalf, the New York Times reports.

And in the U.S. house, a measure that would require all employers to use e-verify, an instant electronic tracking service that confirms the immigration status of their workers, is already getting static from ag-state Republicans.

But back in Utah, a backlash against the Republicans who took a similarly moderate stance is continuing to build. Delegates to the state Republican Party convention voted 833 to 739 to support an effort to repeal the state's guest worker law. The vote opens the door for the Republicans who voted for the measure (there were a lot) to be painted as against the party in upcoming elections, which suggests that the Legislature may swing back to the far right on immigration again rather quickly, undoing, at least in the short term, the progressiveness that briefly drifted to the surface.

So where does all that really leave the West and the U.S.? Probably not a whole lot closer to meaningful change. What a surprise.

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor

Photo of immigration protest courtesy of Flickr user i like jade plants

Sue Thomas
Sue Thomas
Jul 05, 2011 03:49 PM
I live in Arizona the law was no Draconian a terrible word. Any foreign country I visit they require papers. Also, I am not catered to if my primary language is English. I resent going to stores where it is in Spanish and English. The primary language of this country is English. The Mormans need to face the consequences. I am not against immigration, but for legal immigration. To give those people who cross our borders amnesty or ease of citizenship when there are many on the outside waiting their turn I find unreasonable. I am for the Dream Act, but it was written as a massive amnesty with no cutoff, etc. There are citizens looking for work and some cannot become employed unless they speek Spanish. I don't think illegal immigrants have a right to dictate immigration policy.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jul 05, 2011 04:12 PM
Part of the trouble with these state immigration laws (including Arizona's) is that they potentially violate the human rights of those in this country legally who happen to look different. "Reasonable cause" is extraordinarily vague. And I guarantee you that if you drink milk or eat vegetables, you're benefiting from the labor of undocumented workers. If you talk to many in the ag industry, you'll find that most citizens won't work for what the industry claims it can pay. And Americans expect cheap food. So one consequence of an overly ham-fisted immigration policy could be that even more of our produce will come in from oversees, where it can be grown more cheaply and with less oversight (a scary thing when you have hemorrhagic e. coli outbreaks happening elsewhere in the world.)

As a sidenote, Georgia's immigration law has already had a chilling effect on ag labor. Most American citizens don't want farm jobs, so farmers there have resorted to hiring inmates out on parole:[…]/ga-immigration-law-hits-produce-farms-hard

Please note also: The Utah guest worker law has a two year limit on permits and offers no path to citizenship. It also only applies to those in the country as of the time the bill had passed. I'd say it's far more business and farmer friendly than immigrant friendly, really.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that the issue is too complicated for anyone to just say: Get all those undocumented folks the heck out. That has ramifications for everyone, not just those who get deported.
Sue Thomas
Sue Thomas
Jul 05, 2011 04:48 PM
Agriculture needs a guest worker program. I am not just discussing agriculture. Also, I believe in the right of states and less federal control. We need to grow our own food and take more responsibility. Limiting it to those who are unlike us is not the issue. When you have over one-half million immigrants from Mexico who do you look for. It is not just a mere one hundred thousand people. Also, we need to develop a local economy of food that does not have to be transported from overseas. The cheap food that Americans consume is also killing them early. There needs to be a change in consciousness. Hiring inmates on parole is not a bad idea and developing needed agricultural skills as well. I buy produce from local farmers markets and CSA's. If it is at a store I buy organic so those in the fields working are not subject to pesticide poisoning.