As Utah's immigration battle brews, Sen. Luz Robles maintains her voice

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's not a fancy community council room with a polished pulpit and big, leather chairs where leaders direct the city's business with pomp and circumstance. It's the back room of a public library in Rose Park, a musty, boxy place with shabby carpet, plastic seats and glaring fluorescent lights. The people who meet there don't wear ties and shiny shoes. They're the kind of folks who sit back during an important meeting, the dust of the day still settling off their work pants, with one well-worn tennis shoe propped up on the chair in front of them.

But — oddly enough — state Sen. Luz Robles doesn't look out of place standing at the front of the room in her tweed suit and high heels. With a red Hello Kitty folder in hand, pencil stub poised to take notes, she chats with the assembled people like they're old friends — neighbor to neighbor.

Robles represents these people.

Not just in the Utah Senate, but also, to a degree, in a broader sense. Utah is in the midst of demographic transformation. Year by year, the state grows more diverse — in race and culture. An immigrant, a Latina and a single mother, Robles is the face of Utah's future.

She is just 34 years old and a relative political newcomer, but her approach to immigration reform has thrust her into the spotlight in recent months. Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has crafted a novel state solution to the immigration problem that has piqued the interest of legislators across the country. If it works, experts say, it could change the tone of the nation's debate.

SB60 suggests issuing illegal immigrants already living in Utah an "accountability card" that would give them the right to work without changing their legal status. Immigrants would have to pass a criminal background check and learn English to obtain the permit.

Immigration experts have hailed Robles' immigration bill — and Robles herself — as "ground breaking" and "creative." The bill they say, crafted by a new American who understands the Latino community, is perfectly in tune with what immigrants want: not citizenship, but the opportunity to work and live without fear. If the bill were to pass, they predict it may have a similar effect on the nation as Arizona's SB1070, which mobilized local police to enforce federal immigration laws. More than 20 states, including Utah, copied Arizona's legislation.

While some see Robles' bill as an anti-American piece of policy that panders to illegal immigrants. Others, from the Latino community, believe Robles has lost touch with her roots. She is giving immigrants false hope, they say, because the bill is unconstitutional. Legally, they argue, the federal government cannot give a state the power to allow undocumented immigrants to work.

To spend a day with Luz Robles, as she travels from Rose Park to the marbled halls of the legislature, is to see a woman trying to navigate two very different worlds. Like a growing number of Utah's Hispanics, she stands in a difficult place, straddling the line between her heritage and her future.

Up until 1965, 70 percent of U.S. visas were available only to natives in three countries — the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany — and went mostly unused. There were long waiting lists, in the meantime, for the small number of visas set aside for people of other nationalities. Since President Lyndon Johnson changed immigration laws in 1965, putting people of all nations on equal footing, nearly 40 million immigrants have come to the United States. About half have come from Latin America.

As immigrants have poured in, birthrates among whites have fallen. The country's population growth now comes from Hispanics, blacks and Asians, according to the Brookings Institution. Already, whites represent less than half of all 3-year-olds. If immigration continues on the same trend, minorities will outnumber whites by 2040.

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