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

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

• They are young people like 5-year-old Yolanda from Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents paid a "coyote," a human smuggler who brings people into the United States illegally, $5,000 to drive them across the border two years ago. Her father has a job at an Ogden manufacturing plant but has no health insurance. Yolanda received her kindergarten immunizations at a free clinic.

• They are Mexican nationals like "Sarah," who works as a maid in a northern Utah motel. She came here illegally with her husband 10 years ago and has three children. She's been saving her money and hopes to move back to Mexico City within the year.

• In some cases, they are criminals like Jesus Hernandez, who killed his boss, who Hernandez says was cheating him out of his modest wages.

Joe Romel, agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Salt Lake City, calls the scope of illegal immigration "overwhelming."

"It's a difficult task, but wherever you see a thriving economy and wherever there are low-paying jobs, the undocumented illegal people will take them. The documented, legal residents don't want these jobs," he said.

This assertion lies at the crux of a heated debate about illegal immigration.

When pioneers settled Utah, nearly all immigrants were Anglo-Europeans. By the year 2000, 90 percent of all immigrants coming into the Beehive State were Latinos. Because of this dramatic shift, Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration now classifies Utah as one of the new "gateway" states for those leaving other countries for a life in the United States.

Most undocumented residents are from Mexico, some come from South America, Canada and Asian countries. All seek the opportunities afforded by Utah's economy and culture.

"When people say (illegal) immigrants, they not talking about your Canadian friends or European overstays," immigration attorney Chris Keen of Provo said. "They're talking about Mexicans."

At political conventions and caucus meetings, the question arises: "What are you going to do about these illegal immigrants? That is how they perceive the undocumented population," Keen said. "I don't see any clear evidence of how they're hurting anyone."

Many, like the 300 to 500 members of anti-immigration groups in Utah, disagree.

On a table made available at a recent gathering by the anti-immigration group Utah Minuteman, a flier touted "Facts regarding immigration."

"Legal and illegal immigration is a continued threat to our culture, national sovereignty, rule of law, the economy and racial conflict." Utah Minuteman officials said they did not know who sent out the flier.

"People throw information out there," said Luz Robles, interim director of the state's Office of Ethnic Affairs. "It's not data-driven, and they are creating a panic. It's the fear factor at work."

The seven-day Morning News series tackles some of these assertions and looks at the following questions:

• What do undocumented workers do for Utah's economy?

• To what degree do the children of undocumented workers tax Utah's already overloaded education system?

• Who are the men and women who have risked their lives to pursue opportunities in Utah?

• How does this growing population impact Utah crime, health care and social services?

• Congress and the president ultimately set policy about illegal immigration. What is happening nationally in this arena?

• What strategies are federal officials taking in Utah to prosecute those who are here illegally?

An intense study of research about Utah's undocumented population reveals a startling disarray of data.

Because of constitutional concerns, lack of manpower, jurisdictional power or lack of will, there is no local clearinghouse for the issue that everyone seems to care so much about.

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