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."
As a police officer coming up through the ranks of the department he now leads — Burbank came to Salt Lake City many years ago and graduated from a local high school, then the University of Utah before joining the SLPD 19 years ago — he has seen the value of maintaining a good relationship with and respecting all people. The police, he said, have enjoyed great cooperation from illegal immigrants and the general citizenry alike.
But a "chilling effect" is already taking place, he noted, so that some people are reluctant to report domestic violence, rapes and other crimes "because of the immigration fervor going on. There are stories across the country of this taking place."
Said Burbank, "When we treat individuals differently based on race or ethnicity, that is biased. Racial profiling, biased policing, it's inherently wrong and unconstitutional."
There's no behavior related to status or citizenship, he said, which leaves only factors like color of skin for probable cause to stop someone. "The process by which we operate and deal with criminals prohibits that. You can't use how someone looks to stop him.
"The thing that is most disheartening for me in the entire debate is society is wiling to set aside civil rights of everybody to go after this enforcement. And everybody will be compromised if we move toward a system where we can ask for citizenship for no other reason than color of skin. ... It would be not only the undocumented, but citizens. Are we truly willing to sacrifice our constitutional rights in order to feed this emotional debate?"
— Lois M. Collins
Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City doesn't want to belong to an isolated country that closes its borders to immigrants.
"We have a long and great history of dealing effectively and charitably on behalf of both the country and immigrants," Bishop Wester said. "I don't see why today is any different. That has been the genius of America."
He chides those who try to reduce the immigration issue to a U.S. phenomenon only, when it's a global one. To reduce its scope is to fixate on just one or two points, he said.
All the pieces of the debate came together for him personally when he became chairman of the Immigration Committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His travels have taken him to nations such as Vietnam, China, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and have made him acutely aware of the deplorable conditions — the poverty, hunger and refugee camps — so many people live in.
He said the citizenry of a nation as blessed, as the United States has an obligation to help reduce poverty and suffering that's around them. "We can't do everything, but we can do something," he said.
That's not to say the ecumenical leader doesn't recognize the need for comprehensive immigration policy reform. "We need to look at the laws and bring them into the 21st century," Bishop Wester said.
Job No. 1 needs to be generating more temporary worker visas, he said. "We need to create a path for the undocumented to register with the government and gain some level of status in this country." Additional reforms on his list would be deeper examination of the root causes of immigration, ways to help families to remain together and tighter border security. "Any immigration reform must include enforcement provisions allowing the nation's borders to be controlled properly," he said. On Friday, he participated in a conference call to reporters with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other community leaders to discuss the immigration debate, which reached a fever pitch last week with the release of a list containing the names of 1,300 Utah residents supposedly in the country illegally. During the call, Bishop Wester said he'd only lived in Utah for three years, but he felt that whoever was behind the list was not representative of the people here.
"I don't deny that there are difficult, intractable issues involving immigration," he told the Deseret News this week. "But I can't see why we can't get past the petty and achieve some form of immigration reform."
— Chuck Gates
The Sutherland Institute's Paul Mero thinks more folks embroiled in the immigration policy debate need to take a good look in the mirror.
That person you see looking back at you is no different from the person who's being labeled an "illegal" immigrant, says the president of the Utah-based conservative think tank. "I try to remember and remind people that these undocumented immigrants are human beings too."
Mero said the Sutherland Institute went public with its position in May of 2008, shortly after that year's Legislature passed a watered-down version of contentious SB81 requiring public employers and contractors to use E-Verify, which requires employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants, along with other stipulations aimed at making it more difficult to hire undocumented workers.
This year, the Sutherland Institute has proposed an alternative to the Arizona-style law proposed by some Utah lawmakers. Instead, he hopes the Legislature will pass a measure that would issue "working privilege cards" to illegal immigrants who have lived in Utah for several years without breaking any laws. He says this measure would not only show immigrants that Utah is a welcoming state, but would also cut down on identity theft and make illegal residents more willing to cooperate with law enforcement because they wouldn't fear deportation.
Mero doesn't hold back when it comes to challenging the way anti-immigration types have framed the issue. "I think they're un-American, immoral and un-Christian," he said of some of the state's immigration hawks. "They're partly unreasonable, partly irrational," he said. "It's nativism. They take offense when I call it that. But that's what it is. What they're really saying is we have our beachfront property, now don't spoil the view."
Mero sees three possible approaches to solving Utah's undocumented problem: Round them up, starve them out or help them out. "As a conservative, I refuse to round them up. As a moral person, I refuse to starve them out. That leaves helping them out of their situation."
What about those who argue undocumented immigrants' problems are of their own doing? This is America, Mero explains, seeking to put it into context. "If you have a family, which is suffering in a relatively corrupt country, wouldn't you want to try it in the USA?"
— Chuck Gates
Eli Cawley, chairman of the Utah Minuteman Project, says he fights illegal immigration because it ruined his former Mill Creek neighborhood and shatters U.S. identity.
To understand his story, Cawley says others should realize that he lived for six years in Vietnam. He taught English there, married a Vietnamese woman and saw their son born there.
"I went into Vietnam excited, definitely in favor of the (Communist) victory over what I thought was America. But as I lived in Vietnam, I internalized to a very acute extent the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Communists," he said. "I came to see America as the best country in the world."
He says his family moved to a culturally diverse area around 39th South and 300 East "ironically because I didn't want to live with just a bunch of hoity-toity whites."
"Over the next six years, I watched my neighborhood 'Mexify,' " mostly because of illegal immigrants moving in, he said. "Spanish became the language of the people in the area. I watched the homes and the yards degrade."
He said he found crack pipes and empty marijuana baggies thrown into his yard. His wife found a bloody T-shirt on their fence and "freaked out."
But he says what sent him over the edge was an assembly at the local elementary school where children waved what were described as "their" flags. "Sixty percent of those kids were waving the Mexican flag," but almost all of them had been born in America. "You cannot say they were Mexicans. They were Americans."
He adds, "Guess what flag they had my son holding? It was the Communist flag of Vietnam. When I saw that, I freaking blew a gasket."
He later asked the teacher if she knew how many people the Communists killed and subjugated. "She didn't even know what an offense it was to me and my boy," he said, adding it is an example of how people "are dismissive of the American ideal. America has become just another brown spot on the map that is good as any other."
Cawley said, "I felt all alone; I didn't know anyone who had gone through a seminal experience like that." He searched the Internet and found the Utah Minuteman Project and joined in its protests — including a small counterprotest on a day when tens of thousands of illegal immigrants marched in Salt Lake City — and eventually became its chairman and spokesman.
"Illegal immigration has undermined our national identity," he said. "You can't be neutral on this issue."
— Lee Davidson
Ronald Mortensen didn't mean to get into the immigration debate. He had assumed that illegal immigration, though a problem, didn't leave a swath of victims in its path.
He had heard that most immigrants were law-abiding and merely wanted work.
Then, the retired Foreign Service officer wandered into a committee hearing during the 2006 legislative session and learned that illegal immigrants sometimes purchase Social Security numbers on the street in order to get work.
Those Social Security numbers are used fraudulently on tax, credit and job forms. If those numbers belong to children, any of an illegal immigrant's crimes, tax liability or credit problems can be tied to those children, who might grow up with terrible credit before they know what credit is.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Mortensen says. "This is not a victimless crime."
Mortensen co-founded the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, publishes his writings as the Salt Lake City Immigration Examiner at www.examiner.com and blogs for the Center for Immigration Studies.
Now, during each legislative session, Mortensen serves as a full-time, voluntary, unpaid citizen lobbyist with a focus on tax and immigration issues. He helped develop and pass legislation designed to address illegal-alien-driven child identity theft (SB81 and SB251).
Part of the fuel for Mortensen's fire for the immigration debate comes from his career in the Foreign Service.
This year, the federal government will contract with him to go to West African nations and Haiti to coordinate U.S. disaster assistance.
"When I'm in Africa," he said, "I'm talking to people living on a dollar, two dollars a day."
These are places with 40 percent to 50 percent malnutrition and measles epidemics.
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Compared to some African countries, Mexico, with a per capita gross domestic product of $13,800 a year, looks like a rich country.
If U.S. companies need workers, then the government should grant work visas and not worry about citizenship, Mortensen said.
But if it were his choice, he would grant those work visas to citizens of Niger, Burkina Faso or Mali.
"Niger had a total crop failure last year," he said. "I don't have the same level of sympathy for people from richer countries."
— Joseph M. Dougherty