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

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

"One size fits all isn't working for this new generation," Perlich said. "This new generation is minority majority."

Robles can identify with the difficulties many of the children in her district face. The daughter of two Mexican college professors, she was born and raised in Mexico, and didn't immigrate to the United States until her early 20s.

Her parents weren't rich, but they were well enough off to fill their Tijuana house with books and put Robles and her younger brother through private school. As a teenager, Robles got a student visa and crossed the United States/Mexico border to attend high school in San Diego.

Every day, she and her brother loaded up the family's junky '89 Chevrolet Beretta with friends and took the I-5 to Mexico. They spent hours caught in line at the border; hundreds hoped to cross. To pass the time, they chatted and did homework. Traffic was tangled and lawless. Sometimes people with big trucks would drive up onto the sidewalk to pass a long line of cars.

"Those of us who couldn't do that were left to silly competitions with other drivers to see who could snatch up opening spots first or cut into each other's lines," Robles' brother Mario Alfonso Diaz de la Rosa said. "Very entertaining and never a dull moment."

On the way home, they'd often see families running hand-in-hand into oncoming traffic in a desperate attempt to make it to the United States without a visa.

"You would see them spring out from behind the gates in an instant, whole families holding hands, children in tow," he said. "Must be terrifying."

When it came to colleges, Robles parents, devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pushed their daughter to extend her student visa and attend Brigham Young University.

"I told them, 'I'll go to Utah, but I'm going to the U,'" Robles said.

It was nice to be surrounded by other Mormons, she said. But Robles, who, even as a student in San Diego, had always been surrounded by other Latinos, struggled with the state's lack of diversity.

She started tutoring Hispanics children, helping them to read and write English, because "I was looking for a place where I could find someone I could relate to," she said.

What she found was a window into another life.

These children — the children of immigrants like those Robles once watched brave the freeway — fled Mexico to escape poverty and hunger. In poverty with little education, their troubles followed them into America.

"I started hearing the stories of kids having Spanish being the primary language, about their limited access to programs and about disparities in health care," Robles said. "I was learning about this other side of being an immigrant and I wanted to help them."

The desire only increased when she married her college sweetheart, got her green card and eventually earned her citizenship.

"You breathe differently when you become a U.S. citizen," she said. "The first time you go and vote — exercise that right — it's just priceless. I felt like I truly had the power to change the world."

Robles would spend the next decade of her life dedicated to serving the minority community. With a bachelor's degree in business marketing and a master's degree in public administration, she cycled through jobs in interpreting, marketing and teaching. She spent some time as the state coordinator for domestic violence and worked as a health care policy analyst for Utah Policy Issues, a private non-profit that focuses on eliminating poverty in Utah.

"I think people have callings in life," she said. "Like some people are meant to be artists. I'm not good at art. But I've always provided service. I am good at helping people."

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