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Know the West

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 Sometimes, right after your story goes to press and a week before it's actually in anyone's mailbox, it's already outdated.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