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Undocumented: Emotions run high, but Utah tacitly approves of illegals

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2005 12:40 a.m. MDT

Esteban Cosillos, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, closes the hatch of the Ford Explorer he was driving on U.S. 191 near Blanding en route to Denver. The vehicle carried eight illegal immigrants looking for construction work and passed through southeastern Utah on Labor Day.

Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News

First in a seven-part series.

They are dairy farmers, truck drivers, students, business owners and construction workers. They pick the fruit we love this fall. They clean our offices. They make our restaurant meals and change our hotel sheets.

Officials estimate about 85,000 residents of Utah are in this country illegally, and there is no more controversial discussion than the one that centers on the right of these residents to be in the United States.

"Why don't they want to stop it?"

Wally McCormick stood before news cameras this summer, angry that his fellow Utahns aren't more up in arms. He says he's willing to die for the anti-immigration cause. The 68-year-old, an organizer for the anti-immigration group Utah Minuteman, blames illegal immigration for crime, disease, unemployment and stresses on social welfare systems.

"Why aren't people asking that question? Why won't you close the border, Mr. President? Why won't you put National Guard on the border?"

"I think the emotion of the issues exceeds the reality," Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said about this lightning-rod topic. "I think also there's great deal of exaggeration of the facts."

A team of Deseret Morning News reporters studied this subject for more than four months. As part of this week's series, "Life in the Shadows," reporters interviewed dozens of undocumented immigrants and officials who run the schools, hospitals, businesses and social service agencies.

Reporters talked with federal attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes, U.S. border patrol officers who try to keep out those trying to jump the line, immigration attorneys who fight to keep illegal residents here and leaders of the movement that promises to push them back across the borders.

They also traveled to Mexico to see firsthand the homeland so many leave.

Morning News reporters found that despite all the talk and all the emotion, all the conservative talk radio chatter and all the opposition, the Utah establishment has tacitly approved of this population of residents. In fact, many admit the population makes the Utah economy go.

Maybe most important, federal officials charged with enforcing immigration laws are unconcerned with illegal residents in Utah who are working, rearing families and staying out of trouble. Instead, they are putting a full-court press on those in this population committing heinous acts such as smuggling humans, committing sex crimes, running drugs, manufacturing fraudulent documents and taking hostages.

"We prosecute the most dangerous group of people and try to get the biggest bang for our buck," said Dustin Pead, head of immigration prosecution for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City.

Members of the anti-immigration movement call immigrants a population of "illegal aliens." Federal agents assigned to track them down call them "undocumented immigrants." Mostly, they are people trying to make a better life for themselves in Utah:

• They are moms and dads like Angel and Maria, who both work full time on a Brigham City dairy farm. Their faraway hopes for legal status lie on the narrow shoulders of 4-year-old Angelito, born here and a U.S. citizen. When the youngster turns 18, he can sponsor his parents to apply for citizenship.

• They are laborers like Esteban Cosillos, who passed through Utah's southeastern corner on Labor Day with eight men packed into the back of a Ford Explorer. They were on their way to Denver to find construction jobs, Cosillos told the state trooper who pulled him over and then let him go.

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