SALT LAKE CITY — Latinos turned out in large numbers Sunday for what was billed as an "urgent community meeting" focusing on the Utah Legislature's attempts to deal with illegal immigrants.
"There's a lot of concern," said community organizer Tony Yapias. "Families are worried. Concerned."
About 500 Latinos turned out over the course of a five-hour meeting at Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake City. Several said they were fearful and feeling targeted by lawmakers. "You know, we're people," said Park City resident Jorge Camacho. He criticized a tough immigration enforcement bill passed last week by the Utah House. "We are brothers. We are supposed to help each other."
Those attending the meeting were encouraged to write e-mails and to sign the Utah Compact, a document agreed to by a variety of community leaders that was intended to set a moderate course for the immigration debate. The Utah Compact's main principle is that immigration is a federal responsibility, not one for the states.
Jennifer Sanchez of Salt Lake City encouraged lawmakers to support the compact's other principles "so that lawmakers think about and consider the economic impact, the family impact, the business impact."
The biggest concerns at the meeting revolved around Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's Arizona-style enforcement bill which just passed the House. His bill requires police to verify the legal status of suspects in class A misdemeanor and felony cases. He says more than 20 states are considering similar legislation.
"What I'm hoping," Sandstrom said, "is that the states push the issue, saying 'OK, we will enforce current federal law and, federal government, if you don't like that, then solve the problem.' "
Many Latinos fear racial profiling and discrimination, even for Latinos who are legally in Utah.
"That is already happening," said Yapias, who organized the meeting on behalf of Proyecto Latino de Utah. "That happens in certain parts of the state because of who we look like. I mean, they can't differentiate me from somebody who doesn't have papers. And that is the main concern."
"There's a big potential that I could be discriminated against," said Sarai Frost of Salt Lake City, who says she obtained legal status by marrying an American. "Sandstrom's bill will open the door to racial profiling and, yes, I look the part. And I just don't see how it will bring any solution. The people will still be here. They'll just be living in fear."
But Sandstrom says his bill forbids profiling by police. "My bill actually is the first time in the state of Utah that we specifically outlawed racial profiling," Sandstrom said. He hopes his bill will help get immigration back on an orderly, legal basis. "I think ultimately it's going to open the gates for more legal immigration," Sandstrom said. "And what I've always tried to tell people is that I'm not anti-immigrant in any way shape or form. I'd like to see more people from South America or Mexico have the opportunity to come here, legally."
Jorge Camacho, a Park City resident who says he is in the country legally, argues that Sandstrom's bill has already spread worry and fear. "Well right now the Latino community is really scared," Camacho said. "I have a lot of friends and I know a lot of people and they're scared. They don't want to work right now. They stay in their homes."
Camacho said the Legislature's tough attitude toward illegal immigrants is at odds with Utah's culture. "The people in Utah are really friendly," Camacho said. "We like Utah. We love the people. And we are really surprised this is happening. You're attacking your own people."