This is the second article in a four-part series on immigration
OREM — It's hard to ignore the giant American bison head hanging in the entrance of Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's Orem office. It's a deep chocolate brown, shaggy yet majestic, and it's one of about a dozen animals pinned to the white walls in a careful line — a stark contrast to the computers and keyboards framed within their gaze.
Down the hall, Sandstrom points out a few other prize possessions, displayed in his office: there's an impala or two he killed on an African safari, and another couple of animal heads on a chair, still waiting to be hung.
"That's my real big passion is guns and hunting," the Orem Republican legislator says excitedly. "I've been to Africa three times for different animals — hunting. I've shot, I think, 40 different African animals."
Sandstrom has always been a gun advocate, and until recently, a couple of pro-gun bills were the only bits of legislation that brought him any major political attention.
Now he has become the face of the anti-illegal immigration movement in Utah, announcing in April his plans to pursue legislation in Utah that would be modeled on Arizona's SB1070 and require law enforcement to question the immigration status of individuals — who must be stopped for some other offense — when there's reason to suspect the person is in the U.S. illegally.
Sandstrom's announcement has brought a mixture of congratulations and a considerable amount of criticism to his relatively low-profile life. But the 46-year-old father of four is undeterred. For him, a long lover of politics who someday (not now, he says) wants to be a congressman or U.S. senator, this is what he was meant to do.
When Sandstrom was elected to office in 2006, he promised to tackle illegal immigration in Utah. The issue has bothered him for a long time, but he says his concern over the effects of illegal immigration on America really began to crystallize years ago when he traveled the country as a pilot.
Everywhere he went, he saw more and more divided communities, more signs written in both Spanish and English and more neighborhoods that "felt like you were going back to Mexico." Being an American means learning to speak America's language — English — and following American laws, he says. Not taking that step is an offense, legally and culturally.
So Sandstrom has been meeting with Arizona lawmakers for a year and a half brainstorming how to work a bill that could curtail illegal immigration on a state level. Now he's finally ready to take a shot in the next legislative session — despite what some may say.
"It's hard to be called a racist or a bigot when all I want to do is enforce the law," Sandstrom says as he drives straight from work to speak briefly at a rally on a recent July evening. He's wearing a fresh Lake Powell tan, a pinky ring that was a gift from his wife and a gold chain around his neck. "When did it get to the point that you're a racist for enforcing current law — that the federal government is unwilling to enforce?"
He's running late. Already that day, he's had a TV and newspaper interview about immigration. Without making a change to his hair or clothes, he's already perfectly attired in a polo shirt, khakis and loafers as he approaches the rally against the UTOPIA telecommunications service in Orem. He's still talking about immigration when the emcee sees him from afar and announces, "Oh, here's Representative Steve Sandstrom," over the PA system. As the crowd breaks into applause, Sandstrom — who was in midsentence — doesn't miss a beat. Without pausing to collect his thoughts, he turns and says with a smile, "I guess I get no breaks," then takes the microphone for an impromptu, rousing speech.
This is where Sandstrom's two-time state championship for debate in high school comes in handy.
"He's always been good at words and always been good at getting along with people," says his mother, Barbara Sandstrom, who served on Provo's City Council from 2000-07.
Stephen Sandstrom, a fourth-generation architect, was raised in south Orem — the fourth of five children and the family's eldest boy. He says his interest in politics came from reading and discussing the newspaper and issues of the day every night around the dinner table. He felt his first political thrill at age 9 when, after voluntarily passing out fliers on behalf of Richard Nixon, the Republican president was re-elected and Sandstrom felt responsible.
In the late '80s, Sandstrom started studying political science at Brigham Young University. He went on an LDS mission to Venezuela and learned how to speak Spanish fluently — a skill he uses now in doing Spanish interviews on the subject of immigration to disprove ideas that he doesn't like Hispanic people.
He joined the Marine Corps for a time and graduated from Officer Candidate School with the intention of entering the Corps' flight program. Then an inner-eye virus contracted while training in the swamps at Quantico ruined his perfect vision and dashed those dreams.
Sandstrom left the Marine Corps and graduated from BYU, landing a job flying for SkyWest Airlines. In between flight assignments, he earned his architect's license and worked for his dad on the side — though he intended to make his career as an airline pilot. He worked his way up to be a captain for US Airways, until the airline filed for bankruptcy after 9/11.
In 1993 Sandstrom joined the Orem City Council, serving until 1997, before he was re-elected in 2000. He stayed on the council until he ran for state office in 2006 — on an anti-illegal immigration platform. He is up for re-election this year, running against Democratic candidate Steven Baugh.
Since leaving US Airways, Sandstrom has practiced architecture full time, flying only his private Cessna 340, which he parks at the Provo City Airport and often uses for family vacations. His other hobbies are big game hunting, riding his Harley and mountaineering in high altitudes — he's now training to climb Mount Everest next spring.
"I think people sometimes think because he's doing all these things people think he's running around all of the time," says his wife, Jennie. "He really is a family man, and he's a good dad and he's close to all of the kids and I think he takes time because I think that the family is his priority — and I think people don't think that."
Jennie Sandstrom says she supports her husband politically, even when that means she gets angry messages on their home answering machine. She tries to keep the kids — ages 18, 16, 13 and 9 — from hearing the hateful words, but she otherwise brushes off the intrusions.
Sandstrom has also heard complaints about his bill and concerns that it will promote racial profiling. He points to his efforts to meet with various religious and political leaders in the community as evidence of his desire to create a bill that does not target Hispanic people or unintentionally create prejudice against them.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, has said she does not agree with the legislation Sandstrom is pursuing, but the two have talked several times about its potential. Sandstrom said if he can create a bill they both are comfortable with, "then I've accomplished something."
Robles is skeptical that she will ever feel comfortable with this particular bill, but she appreciates Sandstrom's willingness to hear her ideas.
"He is a legislator that I am able to talk with and have discussions, serious policy discussions," Robles said. "Even if we agree to disagree, he does listen and I appreciate that from Rep. Sandstrom and that's not something I can say about all of my colleagues."
In the meantime, Sandstrom is certain he must do something to stem illegal immigration to preserve America's way of life. He views illegal immigration as a cultural threat — the reason more dual-language signs and stores and government programs are appearing in Spanish and not just English. He distrusts the loyalties of someone who comes to the country illegally to "take advantage of Americans" and not take the proper steps to become an American. They don't want to learn English or build our society, or assimilate, he says. And that is destructive.
"To me, illegal immigration is like throwing a brick in the melting pot. That can't melt," he says. "We want to make sure people are coming here properly, that they respect our laws, they respect our country and assimilate, they want to learn our language and be Americans. And that is what has made America so great. But if you're coming here illegally to get in the system and get what you can to send back to your home country, then to me, those people are not representing the melting pot that we want in this country."137 comments on this story
To Sandstrom, finding a way to solve that problem is a little like the thrill he gains from a big-game hunt or climbing a mountain. There's the planning that happens first, picking the animal that is his target, investing time stalking it, researching it and waiting for the perfect shot. And if he can accomplish his goal, taking down the big bison or tackling the complicated beast of illegal immigration, there is impending satisfaction, a rush, he knows, if only he pushes himself hard enough.
See KSL's Dream Divided Series tonight on Channel 5