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

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 10:46 p.m. MST

With Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, Robles established the Center for Multicultural Health. She fought to get translators into health institutions and to issue health campaign literature in Spanish.

"Utah needed to bend over backwards to address health disparities in minority populations," Hilman said. "Our health care system was designed to serve a homogenous population."

Robles also took on the cause of battered immigrant women and established a toll-free crisis hot line to help Utah families affected by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services get access to state benefits. As the first director of the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, Robles helped to establish chambers of commerce for the black, Pacific Islander, Asian and Latin-American communities.

"Luz is a very passionate, gifted individual who is going places," Hilman said. "She will go as far as she possibly can go to bring her vision of a more humane world to fruition."

The lights are on in the Channel 2 News studio. The carmeraman is standing around, drumming his fingers against his slacks. Robles has rushed from the Capitol, where she argued for more money for health and human services programs, to this appointment downtown. She glances at her watch wearily. Ever since she proposed her immigration reform bill last November, she has become the go-to representative for the Hispanic perspective, even though many from the community see her stance as too accommodating. She is one of only four Hispanics in the legislature and she has become the unequivocal face of the group.

Today, Robles is here to debate the merits of her bill with Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, who wants stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants and employers who hire them. The two politicians are often pitted together in atmospheres like this one.

Sandstrom is late. Robles smiles a little.

"I can give his part of the presentation, too," she jokes. "I've heard it enough times. I practically have it memorized."

When Sandstrom shows up and the cameras switch on, Robles often has to bite her lip to keep herself from interrupting. Illegal immigrants cost the state money, Sandstrom says. Robles doesn't agree with his numbers. She sits quietly on her stool, but her eyes flash with anger.

"It depends where you get your statistics," she says later, in the safety of her orange SUV.

She stuffs a handful of Saltine crackers into her mouth as she drives. "I got involved by default," she says. "People assume, 'Oh, Luz, she's Hispanic. I'm sure she'll know about immigration."

She says it as a joke and rolls her eyes. "I don't understand what the undocumented go through — I never had to suffer like that. But I know what it's like to be the outsider."

Robles decided to run for senate after she overheard legislators bickering over how much money the state spent educating the American-born children of illegal immigrants.

"Those were American citizens — American citizen children," she said. "Nobody was standing up for them. I decided I needed to do it myself."

Robles has long been a vocal advocate for undocumented immigrant rights, but until Arizona passed SB1070, the idea of a state solution to the country's immigration problems had never crossed her mind. After Sandstrom announced plans to pursue similar legislation in Utah, rumors started flying: the legislature was going to hold a special session to institute an Arizona-style immigration law.

At first, Robles was worried. Then, one day, lying in bed with her 6-year-old daughter, checking her e-mail on her laptop, she ran across a political cartoon that stopped her heart. The drawing depicted a little Hispanic girl, faced with roadblocks created by Arizona's harsh immigration policy, inquiring of her mother, "What's wrong with me?"

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