The faces of the immigration debate

Published: Monday, July 19 2010 12:51 a.m. MDT

Tony Yapias

Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah

Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino, says some days he wants to walk away from speaking out on behalf of illegal immigrants because of all the hate mail and threats.

"I wonder if I am putting my family at too much risk," he said. "Then, a family comes to talk to me with tears in their eyes and asks for help. Then, I remember why I do this."

Yapias says it is ironic that he speaks out for illegal immigrants because he came here legally from Peru 29 years ago, after his family waited years for permission. His father came first as a sheepherder with a temporary visa. His employer helped him obtain a permanent green card, and four years later, he finally brought the rest of the family to Evanston, Wyo.

Yapias said he was among few Latinos there. But like Pedro in the movie "Napoleon Dynamite," he was elected high school student body president. That led to a trip to Washington, D.C., where former Rep. Dick Cheney (later vice president) and Sen. Alan Simpson, both R-Wyo., urged him to become politically active to help Latinos.

Yapias later interned for Simpson in Washington, D.C. It was there that he first worked to help some illegal immigrants who had fled civil wars in central America. "That was my first reality check about them. It opened my eyes" about tough situations that led to their migration and tough circumstances here.

Yapias said when he was the state Hispanic affairs director under Govs. Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker, he traveled the state extensively and heard many stories from illegal immigrants and started to speak out for those who cannot easily speak for themselves.

"The separation of families hurts me the most — when I see a parent that's being deported and the pain it causes to that family," he said.

He spoke of a family where the father, who had been brought to America by illegal-immigrant parents, had been deported to Mexico. His wife was left homeless here for three months. The stresses threatened to break up their long-distance marriage.

Yapias talked to the man at the Mexico City airport during a layover on a trip to Peru. "He's also essentially illegal in Mexico, too. While he's trying to fix his paperwork, he's making less than $15 a day driving a taxi."

Yapias said he is trying to help others see the human hardship behind the debate so that the sides may be able to compassionately find solutions.

"When I hear people tell me how they have lost everything and are trying to survive, I try to help."

— Lee Davidson

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank has taken a tough stand on immigration enforcement by local police forces — and he has the bruises, though not literal, to prove it.

He wants no part of the idea that local law enforcement should be cross-deputized as immigration enforcers.

"It's counterproductive to our mission, which is to protect and serve every member of our community equally," Burbank said. "That is compromised if we take on the role of immigration enforcement."

Although volumes of hate mail accuse him of being "pro" illegal immigration, he said he has not taken a position on border security or other hotly debated issues surrounding the topic. "I have kept my focus on local law enforcement, and I am comfortable in my position. It's not a political issue so much as it is really about how we police the public, and I have kept my remarks focused on that issue."

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