SALT LAKE CITY — It was a sign that the coming debate on immigration reform will not be calm nor always civil.
As Rep. Stephen Sandstrom entered the state Capitol rotunda to unveil his long-awaited "Arizona-style" immigration enforcement bill, about 100 protesters (most of whom were not Latino) started chanting "Shame on Sandstrom." Then they marched across the rotunda to literally surround him closely as he talked to the media, interrupting him with boos, jeers and waving signs.
"One thing I want to stress is this is not about race," said Sandstrom, R-Orem, evoking boos from protesters. Several called out that he is a liar. Some said it will force only Hispanics to carry papers with them to prove they are in the country legally.
"Illegal is not a race, it's a crime," Sandstrom responded. "There has to be consequences for breaking the law."
He then outlined what consequences would come from a bill that he said "is not a watered-down version of the Arizona law. This is a tough, hard-hitting bill that in some ways goes further than Arizona law in curbing illegal immigration."
Gov. Gary Herbert called it a "good starting point to further discussion on the issue of illegal immigration."
Much like Arizona's controversial bill, Sandstrom's would require law officers to check the immigration status of people detained or arrested for other reasons if officers have "reasonable suspicion" that they are here illegally. Officers would then need to turn over such people to federal immigration officials.
Sandstrom said that someone presenting a "driving privilege card," which in Utah is now given only to illegal immigrants, would be "absolute proof" of being here illegally. That could make illegal aliens stopped for a traffic violation face a tough choice: either fear being charged for driving without permission if they show nothing or possibly be deported if they show a driving privilege card.
Sandstrom said it shows that the state probably needs to rethink its current practice of issuing driving privilege cards. Critics have said that getting rid of them could lead to more people being on the road without insurance — which is difficult to obtain without a license or privilege card.
Unlike Arizona's law, Sandstrom said his version would allow an officer to question the immigration status of only the person who is being held for violating a crime — and would not allow questioning others who may be in the same car or in the general vicinity of where a crime occurred.
Also, Sandstrom said his bill would not allow questioning people for some minor crimes such as loitering, so that day laborers gathering at a hardware store seeking work could not be questioned.
Sandstrom said his version also outlaws racial profiling. "It requires law enforcement agencies not to consider race, color or national origin as a reason for asking the question."
But Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has said such bills put police in an impossible situation. He said it is virtually impossible not to racially profile (or be accused of it) unless police ask everyone they detain about immigration status, and the bill allows suing police if a citizen thinks they should have questioned someone.
The bill would give any citizen court standing to sue any agency he or she feels is not enforcing the law — and agencies could face fines of up to $5,000 a day. It also would ban local governments and agencies from passing any rules or ordinances that would interfere with enforcement of the law.
The bill would also allow police to transport illegal immigrants to federal facilities so they wouldn't need to be detained in local jails.
The bill considers proof of citizenship to be a driver's license or photo identification issued by a state or tribe. Sandstrom also said if someone merely says they are a citizen, his bill requires officers to accept that. But Sandstrom said lying about immigration status is a felony, so he would advise against it and the harder consequences it could create.
Sandstrom said his bill would also require "state and local agencies that give public benefits to verify the legal status" of recipients by using programs that match Social Security numbers with name, age and gender.
That provision prompted numerous groups that advocate for the poor to send a letter Friday to regional administrators of federal food stamp and Medicaid programs to come to Utah to talk to Sandstrom and others about privacy rights required by federal law, and how Sandstrom's bill might violate them.
"Nobody is going to apply for these programs if there is a risk they will be publicly shamed and embarrassed for it," said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center. "Federal officials need to come to Utah and explain the rules to some of the leaders of our state."
Sandstrom, however, said his bill simply "takes current federal law, not anything beyond, and puts it on state books and enforces it."
Sandstrom and critics debated the moral, racial and even religious implications of his bill.
After one protester called him racist, Sandstrom said, "It's a sad state in our country, I believe, when you can say that you want to enforce the law … and for some reason it's considered racism."
Sandstrom also addressed religious questions a day after Proyecto Latino director Tony Yapias said that the bill by Sandstrom — who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — would hurt trust of Mormons by Hispanics, and contended Sandstrom's bill violates a church call for compassion as the issue is considered.
"Compassion does not mean that you can willfully violate the law," Sandstrom said. "Too often in society today we want to have no consequences for violation of the law. I believe that my legislation does compassionately deal with this issue and at the same time demand that the rule of law be followed."
He said the LDS Church has taken no position on the bill. But, he added, "The LDS Church demands that its members honor, obey and sustain the law. … I think what I'm doing is in harmony with those teachings."
Although Herbert called Sandstrom's bill a good starting point, he did not endorse the measure. "I look forward to other proposals that I expect to come forward," the governor said.
Still, Sandstrom predicted his bill will pass and the governor will sign it. He said he will have many citizen Latinos testify in favor of it in hearings at the Legislature.
Protesters, meanwhile, vowed to kill it.
"I believe this is a racial and social sin," said the Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, who joined protesters at the Capitol. "It will create fear."
Ellen Monahan of Ogden said, "This is just terrorism." She came to the Capitol in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen tube and said she is concerned about her Hispanic neighbors. "They are good people and hard workers. This bill will target all Hispanics and anyone who looks different."
Frank Cordova, head of Centro Civico Mexicano, said, "This bill implies that everyone who is undocumented is evil." He added, "We need to work on reform in Congress" to have a national solution.
Another protester, Michael Picardi, with the Coalition of Utah Progressives, said, "This is a national issue and only Congress can solve this. … There are also fiscal concerns. How are they going to pay to defend this in court? How are they going to pay the extra incarceration costs?"