Paul T. Mero: Partisanship hinders Utah immigration solution

By Paul T. Mero

President of Sutherland Institute

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 8 2011 6:27 p.m. MST

State Senator Luz Robles, along with many fine colleagues associated (and some not typically associated) with Sutherland Institute, developed the idea of an "accountability card" for undocumented immigrants living in Utah. SB 60, which is co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by conservative Republican Jeremy Peterson, meets the criteria to establish a workable solution.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a truly Utah solution: partisan, special-interest politics. This factor might single-handedly derail everything we can do in Utah to ensure our public safety, protect freedom and promote prosperity.

In one corner are "immigration activists" who insist immigration-related matters are concerns for the federal government only. They are the first to say that any Utah solution would be "unconstitutional" but ignore the reality that Utah is a sovereign state permitted to address any federal ineptitude affecting our public safety, freedom and economy.

In another corner are Utah businesses that rely on immigrants, documented or undocumented, to work for them. This is a reality of life and cannot be overlooked. But these business interests have a tendency to objectify undocumented immigrants as simply "workers," forgetting the human struggles and complexities they have with family, security and financial issues – just like every other human. And because they tend to see immigrants that way, they propose narrow ideas, such as "guest worker" programs, that lead to further objectification.

In still another corner are a few state legislators who, despite a good understanding of the problem and of a potential Utah solution – a solution that could be a model for the rest of the nation – feel compelled to focus on the shrill voices of the vocal constituents who show up at caucuses during election season. These legislators want to do the right thing but struggle because re-election is their priority.

Finally, in yet another corner are other legislators who oddly cannot give credit where credit is due because the credit would go to a Democrat. It is sad that someone with a "D" by her name, Senator Robles, is persona non grata simply because she's not in the majority party. As I mentioned, the proposal we've worked on together for nine months is a truly effective and comprehensive Utah solution. I have never understood this sort of political shunning. An idea is good or bad on its own merits.

In response to these partisan complications, many Utah community leaders and courageous legislators have intervened. The widely popular Utah Compact, the brainchild of the Downtown Alliance, has helped to unify Utahns (and public opinion) around constructive, comprehensive solutions. The compact addresses the all-important aspect of context. It is a timely reminder that this issue is complex and affects everyone, and that simple-minded or punitive ideas won't get us where Utah needs to be.

In addition, thoughtful state legislators are working aggressively behind the scenes. House Speaker Becky Lockhart is doing her best to allow all ideas to surface among her House colleagues. I, along with several other people, have asked State Senator Curt Bramble to lead an effort to cobble together a unified approach. Senator Bramble has some experience with these issues as the sponsor of the very successful "driving privilege card," which has enhanced public safety. Interestingly, Senator Bramble worked closely with then-civilian Luz Robles to get that bill passed.

In the same breath, much credit in driving a broad-based Utah solution goes to Governor Gary Herbert and Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell. The buck stops with them, ultimately, and they have been helpful and courageous in guiding a constructive dialogue.

With that said, there remains a void in leadership. Immigration is such a hot political issue among the Republican rank and file who attend caucus meetings and conventions that the behind-the-scenes work isn't sufficient anymore. While the shrill activist voices don't have enough clout to pass anything into law, it seems they do have enough clout to stop reasonable ideas.

Now is the time for leadership. Now is the time for courageous men and women to stand up and insist upon a bipartisan, truly Utah solution that will serve as a model for the nation. We can do it.

Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.

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