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John Tenney: Let's consider the 'whole elephant'

By John Tenney

Published: Thursday, Feb. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Recently I sat in a front row at a debate: "Resolved: Utah Should Enforce Federal Immigration Laws." On one side were those who believe we should just punish those who have come here illegally; the other side argued that we need a more comprehensive and compassionate plan than that.

As I listened to the debate and heard the alternate clapping and emotional comments by some in the audience, I was reminded of the story of the blind men, each describing the elephant from the single body part he could feel. Like this faulty description of the whole elephant, apparently not enough people see the big picture about immigration, or at least they don't often talk about it if they do.

This elephant, though, is in our living room, and has been there for decades. He came here as a little elephant; we've walked around him, we fed him, we taught and cared for him, he did work for us, we lived with him and then essentially ignored him until he became too big — way too big — to get him back out the door.

Any reasonable thinking person, no matter what side of the illegal immigration issue they're on, will understand that we're not going to deport 12 million Latinos back to Mexico and to countries further south. Simply not going to happen. Besides, states can't deport anyone.

So what is a state to do? Utah Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, is sponsoring a bill, similar to an Arizona law, that requires police officers who stop anyone for any legal infraction, no matter how minor, to detain that person — and anyone riding in the car with them — if the officer has reason to believe that they might be here illegally.

How is an officer supposed to decide if a person is illegal or not without racial considerations? For example, I am a white, bald man who speaks perfect Spanish, having spent time in South America. Would any officer have probable cause to detain me as a possible illegal alien? Not likely. But, on the other hand, what if my skin, hair, and eyes were dark and I spoke English with an accent?

Sandstrom said he wants to discourage other illegal immigrants from coming to Utah by punishing those who live here, those who have been here for a very long time. He said he wants to make an example of these folks in a way that will act as a deterrent to others, by pressuring all the illegals to leave on their own (he calls it "self-deportation").

Sandstorm's side kept referring to the "rule of law." But what if a so-called law is not based on a good rule? In deciding whether to convict a defendant or not, there was a time in this country when a jury could decide about the rightness and fairness of the law itself. Perhaps the "public" jury may want to reassert that right.

Let's take one extreme example: Suppose every driver who drove over the speed limit, even one mile an hour, were to be stopped by an officer and detained. There wouldn't be enough police, jails, courts, judges, and lawyers to go around. When Sandstrom was asked how much it would cost to enforce his bill, he couldn't answer but side-stepped the question by referring to how much illegal immigrants "cost."

If you want to see what Arizona's "self-deporting" law has done to that state's economy, just go visit the Arizona state Capitol — when the Legislature is not in session the lights are out, literally, to save money.

In the debate, the term "catch and release" was used often. Since Utah is such a big hunting and fishing state, I can understand where the term came from, but I thought it referred to fish, not to human beings living in our state.

The call goes out for statesmen who will deal with the whole elephant, more than just a body part or two. In this case, we all need to do some heavy lifting. Since the elephant has lived with us so long, can't we all just get along?

John Tenney lives in Salt Lake City and is a member of the American Translators Association, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and is State Director for the Elderly in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

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