The 'Utah solution' to immigration

  • Utah State Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R, stands in the middle of protesters at the Utah State Capitol as he introduces an anti-immigration bill similar to Arizona's strict SB 1070 last August in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    Getty Images, George Frey

Utah State Rep. Bill Wright is conservative to the bone. The Republican seems flabbergasted by the immigration debate that's flared up since the passage of Arizona's SB1070 last spring. Critics say the law -- tied up in federal courts over its questionable constitutionality -- legitimizes racial profiling in order to ferret out undocumented residents.

But Wright isn't decrying Democrats seeking a more lenient approach. He's reserved his ire for Republicans behind copycat measures that focus only on enforcement and penalizing businesses that hire undocumented workers. "Because the federal government has failed to take responsibility, we're going to go after someone else? I think that's the most backward thinking in the world," Wright, an affable man with a family dairy farm near Fillmore, exclaims over cellphone static and the bawling of cows. "I don't want to tax businesses. I don't even believe in licensing. Why would I want to give the government more control over small businesses?"

So Wright sponsored HB116. If it can get a federal waiver, the successful omnibus measure will allow undocumented workers already in the state who've paid fines and cleared background checks to apply for a two-year work permit. It's a clear counterpoint to Utah's other major immigration bill to pass this session: a watered-down version of SB1070. With that measure already tied up in court over its constitutionality, its sponsor, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R, is pushing for a version of a 2007 Arizona law that imposes steep penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers -- upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May. "Our intent," says Wright, "was to say, maybe there's some other way."

In a year when state lawmakers floated a record 1,538 immigration-related bills during the first three months -- including an extraordinarily punitive Alabama law that, among other things, requires K-12 schools to check the immigration status of students -- many observers were surprised that such a flexible approach could succeed in a state as red as Utah. It appears, however, to rise from some of the very values that Utah's conservatism claims as its bedrock -- religious conviction and a deep respect for business and family.

HB116 is the political fruit of the Utah Compact, announced last fall by business, political, religious and law-enforcement leaders who hoped to redirect the immigration discussion before lawmakers convened for their general session in January. The compact lays out five principles: that illegal immigration requires a federal solution; that law enforcement should focus on criminals, not civil violations of federal code; that immigration policy should not break up families; that immigrants play a vital economic role; and that Utah should welcome "people of goodwill." Laws must be obeyed, says Bishop John Wester, one of the compact's architects and head of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, but "we're asking our people to look beyond that. ... We're asking the question, 'Are there not other laws? What about God's law?' "

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- influential in Utah, where 60 percent of residents (and the vast majority of legislators) are Mormon -- also endorsed the compact. It has weighed in directly on immigration twice more this year, advocating a love-thy-neighbor approach, and, on June 10, came out in favor of the guest-worker idea. Its stance is uncharacteristically overt and may be as practical as it is moral: Hispanics accounted for nearly 78 percent of population growth in Utah over the last decade, and now make up 13 percent of the overall population. The church also has a significant presence in Mexico, from which the majority of Utah's 110,000 undocumented residents hale.

Many of the compact's supporters worried that an Arizona-style law would be a disaster, and not just because Hispanics comprise the state's largest minority group. SB1070 cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars in lost convention bookings and revenue, according to the Center for American Progress. Such fallout would slam Utah's economy, which relies heavily on tourism and hospitality, says Marty Carpenter of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations behind the compact. Besides, Carpenter says, undocumented residents (and their documented family members) aid business and budgets through their labor -- often in jobs that few citizens want -- and as consumers, paying taxes on purchases, property, gas and more.

Not all the compact's champions support Wright's bill, but they share its tacit goal of trying to force, and steer, federal action. Utah's Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Wester and other leaders have promoted their approach to other states and even to the White House. Supporters are also working with the National Immigration Forum to recruit national leaders and launch an "America's Compact" this summer. But though President Obama gave a speech in El Paso in May calling for comprehensive immigration reform, there's little chance he'll act so close to the 2012 election. Congress is unlikely to get anywhere, either, and Utah's own delegation hasn't come near the so-called "Utah Solution."

Supporting it, says political science professor Tim Chambless of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, may increase the lawmakers' risk of being branded as not conservative enough. The state's caucus-convention system allows delegates more extreme than most Utah voters to oust even popular incumbents at the parties' nominating convention before they reach the primary. Meanwhile, it's unclear how much difference the LDS church's immigration statements have made on the ground: The issue is extraordinarily divisive and a call for HB116's repeal has gained momentum, with critics denouncing the bill as "amnesty." If that sentiment grows, it may endanger Republican incumbents who voted for the measure and drive the Legislature even further to the right on immigration.

That could ultimately help pave the way for more sweeping reform by alienating the fast-growing Latino electorate, says immigrant advocate Tony Yapias, a Mormon native of Peru who directs Proyecto Latino de Utah. Chambless is also hopeful, though more measured: "I tell my students that if you're going to live in this country, you better know Spanish and know it better than I do."

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