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Robert Bennett: Utah: national leaders on immigration reform

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

It's always nice when someone else says something nice about Utah.

Under the headline, "Immigration reform, the 'Utah Way'", The Washington Post recently examined the immigration law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. Its author pointed out the differences between Utah's law and Arizona's and attributed Utah's decision to avoid the Arizona approach to people he called "unimpeachable conservatives."

He started with the bill's chief sponsor, State Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, quoting him as saying that his politics are "extremely conservative," and that he may have voted for a Democrat once, possibly 40 years ago, for sheriff. Wright, "a plain-spoken dairy farmer," has employed Hispanic farmhands for years and admires their work ethic. He doesn't like the idea that the federal government should step into lives of these people and deport millions of them along with their families.

Another strong conservative voice in Utah political circles, The Sutherland Institute, has also been on board. The article quotes its executive director, Paul Mero, as saying, "… now the adults are going to start talking about how to handle these matters. We've been able to break through that political barrier put up by (those) who see every brown person as a criminal."

Critical support for the law came from a group organized around the issue, called the "Utah Compact." Members of this group, which included the police, much of the business community, some key elected officials and, according to the article, "critically, the Mormon Church, whose members include perhaps 90 percent of Utah's state lawmakers," were afraid that Utah's image would be irreparably damaged, with the state paying a serious financial price, as Arizona has done in lost tourism and convention dollars, if it followed Arizona's course.

To those who opposed their efforts by asking, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" the supporters of the bill responded with questions that are similarly worded but still reflect conservative principles. "What part of destroying the economy don't you understand?" and "What part of breaking up families don't you understand?" I am particularly aware of the power of that second question because I had a number of former colleagues in the Senate, strong conservatives who place the preservation of strong families high on their list of political imperatives, tell me how troubled they were with the possibility that rigid enforcement of current immigration regulations, Arizona style, might well destroy functioning families in their own states.

This concern is unfair to Arizonans because they have not yet had enough time dealing with their law for anyone to have any hard evidence that it will, in fact, affect immigrant families in that state. Nonetheless, in politics, perception is reality, and the perception that applying an Arizona approach would be a mistake is spreading. Several states where a similar law was introduced early in their legislative sessions have now rejected it and interest in Utah's law is growing. The article reports, "Reform advocates are at work on versions of the Utah Compact in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Washington, Idaho and Oregon."

While I was in the U.S. Senate, I always avoided injecting myself into the activities of the state Legislature, figuring that they had their jobs and I had mine. Now, however, I can say that I agree with their work — their approach is the same as the one for which I voted on the Federal level — and thank them, the governor and the Utah Compact for bringing the state some good publicity on the national scene.

As I said, it's always nice when someone else says something nice about Utah.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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