John Florez: Illegal immigration not simply a legal problem

Published: Monday, June 2 2008 12:40 a.m. MDT

It's not about what other states are doing or what the feds are not doing; rather it's what we ought to be doing to prosper in a new world economy. The Utah Legislative Task Force on Immigration has been given an important responsibility; yet it was mandated to focus primarily on symptoms — laws, sanctions, access to public benefits — rather than solutions that embrace our values and our economic interests.

It reminds me of the saying, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem is a nail. How we view a problem is how we determine the solution.

The problem of illegal immigration for the United States is an economic and work-force problem, rather than simply a legal one. Historically, America has used foreign labor as a way of solving its economic and labor shortages in the context of world economics, such as during World War I and World War II. Immigrant labor worked because it allowed the United States to have a flexible and temporary work force that responded to the needs of its economic environment at the time.

Though well-intentioned, whatever recommendations the task force comes up with will not solve the social and economic problems we face. It was not designed to analyze immigration as a global phenomenon, given how globalization has changed our nation's economy and way of life. However, any meaningful solutions must be formulated within that framework and, like any public policy, must be done with two principles in mind: what is in our nation's interest and what is consistent with the values of our society. "That's big medicine," as my late friend Judge Frank Wilkins used to say. The Legislature ought to consider that medicine.

The current public outcry over illegal immigration seems due to our fears over an uncertain economy and changing world, and we are quick to look for someone to blame for our woes. Then there are elected officials who exploit fear for their political gain and blame foreign workers and the faraway federal government. In our frustration, we demand our elected officials quickly solve our problems. But the solutions do not, and should not, rest only on the shoulders of elected officials; rather they should rest on all segments of our community — public and private.

Over the last five years, we have seen both sides of the debate complain about the problems we face and demand quick answers, but few have taken the time to understand the problem in the context of a fast-changing world, where we now see other nations passing us by. Rather than complain and wait for our legislators to struggle for solutions, we must do what the late Joseph Rosenblatt, an industrial leader and generous philanthropist in our state, did when people complained about a problem. In his gentle voice he would ask, "What would you recommend?" It's a powerful statement we should heed.

While other groups wait to see what the Legislature will do, the Sutherland Institute has taken the initiative to make some specific recommendations for lawmakers to consider. It has taken a universal view of the issue and formulated a set of recommendations consistent with principles that embrace the values of our nation. What it has done is put something for the Legislature and the public to consider (www.sutherlandinstitute.org) rather than wait for answers. Those individuals/groups that have been vocal about the issue should do the same.

Our nation's greatest asset is in our ability to risk, dream and welcome those who come to this country to rekindle those values. Let us find ways to renew the promise of a better America.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net

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