Bridging the divide: As the legislative session begins this month, the immigration reform battle heats up

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 1:05 a.m. MST

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, center, talks with Rep. Bill Wright, R-Ephraim, after Wright spoke on the first substitution of senate bill 77 in the house chambers at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah Tuesday, March 9, 2010.

T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It was just another immigration rally on Capitol Hill: about 80 people on both sides of the issue glared at one another from behind signs made from poster board and yardsticks. "Who would Jesus Deport?" "I support the rule of law!" But before Rep. Stephen Sandstrom could finish, a twenty-something Latina in the back was spouting off snarky comments and the Utah Minutemen were going red in the face. By the time the microphones were turned off, the Utah Highway Patrol had to step in to quell the yelling and shoving.

That was in November. When the Utah State Legislature actually convenes at the end of this month, the debate promises to be even more hot blooded. Though everything associated with immigration — border crossing, visas, citizenship — land squarely under the jurisdiction of the federal government, immigration has inched its way into Utahans' top 10 priorities, according to a recent survey conducted by the Utah Foundation. The number of illegal immigrants living in Utah — an estimated 110,000 people, according to the Pew Hispanic Center — has nearly doubled in the past decade.

"The federal government has really let us down; everyone thought for sure they would take on immigration reform last year," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins. "Now the issue's become something of a boil. It's just sitting there festering, slowly building to a head."

Over the past decade, Congress has tried multiple times to overhaul the immigration system. In 2007, the most recent attempt, which included enhanced border security, a guest-worker program and legalization for undocumented immigrants, died in the Senate amidst heated public debate about amnesty. Since then, talks have focused, not on comprehensive reform, but on tougher border enforcement and more deportations. In the meantime, states are left to deal with the effects of a broken immigration system. Undocumented immigrants don't integrate into society; rather, frightened of being deported, they have relegated themselves to the shadows. This has led to gross violations of wage and workplace conditions, which, some argue, lowers the floor for all workers. Identity theft, a necessary evil for undocumented immigrants who wish to land a job, has become an epidemic.

"The tension is that the federal government has complete authority over who enters the country but no say, for the majority of them, about where they'll live or work," said Audrey Singer, a demographer with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. "The responsibility of the day-to-day business of immigration, including how people are housed, how children of immigrants are educated, and all kinds of neighborhood level things fall to local governments and local organizations, so it sets up this more urgent need from below than above."

Clamoring for change, people have turned to their local leaders. States are filing immigration-related bills by the hundreds. During the first half of 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that only six states had not filed immigration-related bills. Even states like Alaska and Maine, where experts estimate there are fewer than 10,000 illegal immigrants, have joined in.

In Utah in 2010, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, made headlines when he announced plans to adopt a bill that would require state police to enforce federal immigration laws. Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, got similar coverage when she introduced a bill that would give illegal immigrants a legal avenue to hold a job. But the two bills are far from alone. At least a dozen legislators are mulling over immigration-related bills for the 2011 legislative session. There are so many ideas that — for the sake saving discussion time — Senate leaders have pitched the idea of an omnibus bill.

In anticipation of a throw down over the issue, a coalition of business, political and religious leaders banned together earlier this year to draft The Utah Compact, a document pleading for civility. Even the Mormon Church, which has largely shied away from making public declarations about politics, has weighed in. However it shakes out, people on both sides of the argument agree, what Utah does about immigration will color the state's reputation.

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