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

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

Utah, which is historically known for having "a lot of babies but not a lot of immigration," is behind the national curve when it comes to demographic trends, said Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah. But data indicates the formerly homogeneous state is quickly catching up with the nation.

Immigration today has a lot in common with immigration of years past, Perlich said. An influx of immigrants has always produced backlash of sorts in the United States. As the federal government continues to sit on its hands when it comes to immigration reform, illegal immigration has become a hot topic in nearly every state legislature this year. But in a lot of ways, the immigrants of the 21st Century differ from those of the past.

Traditionally, over the course of a few generations, U.S. immigrants detach their sense of identity from the old country and bind it to the new, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Modern immigrants, like Robles, however, inhabit two cultures. Only 33 percent of second generation Hispanics and 50 percent of third generation Hispanics identify themselves first as Americans, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Only 22 percent of young Latinos say their parents have encouraged them to speak only English. Young Latinos are more likely to identify themselves as ethnic minorities than their parents.

"The melting pot is dead," the Pew Hispanic Center declared in a recent report about the acculturation of young Latinos. "Long live the salad bowl."

Robles has been accused of being both not American enough and too American. Deseret News readers criticize Robles for having the "gall to post an American flag on her web site" when she clearly places illegal immigrants' needs above those of U.S. citizens. The Latino community criticizes her for sacrificing her culture for success.

"The truth is Luz has an image problem with the Latino community," said Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah. "She's become a part of the system and she's forgotten who she is — all for political gain."

It's a brisk and windy January afternoon, and Robles is late. Striding through the halls of the Utah State Capitol, she keeps a purposeful pace, faux-snake-skin shoes snapping a brisk beat against the marble floors. The rhythm of her descent from the Democratic caucus to a budget meeting on the fourth floor, slows frequently, though: here to greet, with sparkling eyes and arms flung wide open, a stern, graying fellow senator; there to promise, smiling warmly, a future lunch meeting. She speaks with an accent — English is not her first language — but she chatters on like an American teenager, peppering her sentences with "like," "totally" and "awesome."

On the way to her meeting, Robles meets her new intern.

He is — like her last intern — a Latino. Robles chuckles a little when she learns his last name: Espanol.

"For some reason they always give me the Spanish speakers," she said.

The intern smiles awkwardly. It's his first day at the capitol and his shoulders are so full of tension they're creeping up toward his ears. Robles, noticing, swiftly makes a joke about Brigham Young University, where he attends. She got both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Utah.

A bystander in the elevator observes, giving the young man a quick wink, "Luz will take good care of you."

Robles lives in a gentrifying section of Rose Park, where Utah's growing diversity is particularly noticeable. Area schools are 92 and 94 percent minority. Take a walk through the Rose Park library, where Robles often holds community meetings, and you'll see Hispanic and black children working on the computers, browsing the bookshelves and chatting over homework. Whites are the minority.

In some ways, the state is still poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of the emerging population. As a result, minorities in Utah — and Latinos in particular — are more likely to drop out of high school or experience a teen pregnancy than their peers across the nation. In Utah, 20 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of blacks live in poverty, in comparison to 9 percent of whites, according to the Community Action Partnership of Utah. The health department reports Utah minorities have higher obesity rates and are more likely to develop diabetes.

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