Amy Choate-Nielsen: In cross hairs: Sandstrom lands in hot spotlight as he takes a lead in fighting illegals

Published: Sunday, July 18 2010 8:00 p.m. MDT

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom is big on hunting. "That's my real big passion is guns and hunting," he says.

Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah

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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.

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