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An Emerging Political Middle: Can Utah Shape Immigration Consensus?

– Posted in: Immigration Reform

Can a middle ground be found for immigration reform?

Practicing as an immigration attorney in Riverside, recent events in Hemet, Lake Elsinore, and other local cities have taught me a bittersweet truth.  Without a middle ground, there can be no immigration reform.

Far too many immigration opponents have taken a strong “law and order” stance against undocumented immigrants and refuse to negotiate on any issues related to comprehensive immigration reform.  In their view, it’s a one-way deal.

But a thawing-out may be taking place, starting in the State of Utah.

Utah Jumps Into The Immigration Debate

In the newest immigration reform development, the State of Utah has taken a leading role in forging a workable solution.

A few weeks ago, it seemed Utah was going to follow Arizona.  Utah was ready to draw a strong line against undocumented immigrants.  They were viewed as criminals, plain and simple. The human side of the immigration debate was not within Utah’s political framework.

The Utah governor, Gary R. Herbert, made it clear he expected to sign a tough law, like Arizona SB 1070, before the year ended.

A few events, however changed the Utah government’s thinking.   First, as the Arizona situation unfolded, the state was hit with several costly lawsuits.  Second, economic boycotts have harmed Arizona financially.  Third,the release of 1,300 names of Utah residents suspected of being unlawful documents.

Faced with expensive lawsuits, coupled with losing potential tourist business, caused Governor Herbert and his supporters to rethink their policies on immigration.

Yet, perhaps the turning point took place when Alex Segura called Tony Yapias to express his unhappiness with the unlawful release of the 1,300 names.  Segura is the leader of Utah Minutemen Project, an organization strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  Yapias is the host of a popular Spanish-language radio show and a strong supporter of immigration reform.

They joined forces to hold a press conference.  They asked for the immigration debate to be conducted in a civil manner.

Within days, Governor Herbert held a special meeting with church leaders, business leaders, law enforcement officials, and leading community members like Yapias to discuss immigration.

According to the Governor, everyone with an interest in the immigration issue needs to be at the table to express their points of view.  He noted, “If we do that, then I think the process will lead us to a conclusion – and hopefully a consensus conclusion.”

The Utah Compact

As a result, due in part to the backing of the Utah Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Attorney General, discussions shifted to a more-inclusive approach, and ideas like a guest worker program.

One Utah legislator, State Senator Luz Robles, calls the proposal an integration program aimed at helping undocumented immigrants if they pay a fine and agree to learn English.

Political, business, civic, law enforcement, and religious leaders outlined a core set of principles to guide immigration reform discussions.

Based on moderation and civility, they drafted a declaration of five principles to guide their immigration discussions.

FEDERAL SOLUTIONS – Immigration is a federal policy issue between the U.S. government and other countries – not Utah and other countries.  We urge Utah’s congressional delegation, and others, to lead efforts to strength federal laws and protect our national borders.

LAW ENFORCEMENT – We respect the rule of law and support law enforcement’s professional judgment and discretion.  Local law enforcement resources should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code.

FAMILIES – Strong families are the foundation of successful communities.  We oppose policies that unnecessarily separate families.

ECONOMY – Utah is best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity.  We acknowledge the economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers.

A FREE SOCIETY – Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah.  We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history, and spirit of inclusion.

In addition, the Compact emphasizes, “The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors.”

Although some of the wording can be interpreted in multiple ways, the overarching theme of the Compact is a marvelous accomplishment of compromise in action.

It’s time for more communities to follow Utah’s footsteps.

Yet, there are opponents.   They believe such integration programs would only worsen the state’s problems with undocumented immigrants.  Fearing it will encourages people to come from Arizona and other places, Segura notes, it will send a message Utah is a sanctuary state.

Some observers feel the key to compromise depends on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who are a powerful influence in Utah politics.  Earlier, Mormon church officials noted their preference for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.  Even before the Governor’s meeting, a church leader said Utah’s political leaders need to find solutions “in the best interests of all whose lives will be impacted by their actions.”

The Beginning Of An Immigration Solution?

Shortly after the names was released, Yapias met with individuals on the list.  According to the Washington Post, one person told Yapias, “I know I broke the law by coming here.  But since then, I have done everything I can, like pay taxes and pay bills on times, to ensure I don’t break the rules.”

In my experience as an immigration attorney, this statement encapsulates the need for true immigration reform – not just an enforcement, kick-them-all-out policy.

The immigrant population is large and those who have been here 10 years or longer have deep ties to this country.  Most have families and stable jobs.  Many own businesses and homes.  To attempt to massively remove them from the United States would rip the heart out of communities across the land.

When I serve as an immigration deportation defense trial lawyer, the fortunes of my clients turn on a concept termed “hardship.”  In short, how much will an immigrant’s U.S. citizen and permanent resident spouse, minor children, and parents suffer if the immigrant is deported?

The question is directly tied to the current reform debate.

When immigration opponents start to understand the integration of these immigrants into their communities, as in Utah, the nation will finally be able to have sensible discussions aimed at positive solutions, not just negative criticisms.

By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics