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Utah relationship with Mexican state called key to immigration reform

Published: Wednesday, April 27 2011 4:46 p.m. MDT

Paul Ahlstrom, managing director and co-founder of Alta Ventures Mexico, speaks about Utah's HB466 and the relationship of Utah with Nuevo Leon on Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

Laura Seitz, Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lost in all the talk about the so-called Utah Solution to illegal immigration is a proposed partnership with the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico.

And when HB466 has come up, a Utah entrepreneur who worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for it says the legislation has been largely misunderstood.

Paul Ahlstrom, co-founder of vSpring Capital, said the often cited provision for a migrant worker program isn't what the bill is all about. And he said it angers him when people say all it will do is bring more immigrant labor to the state and displace local workers.

The key component, Ahlstrom said, is the creation of a commission to study the economic, legal, cultural and educational impact of illegal immigration on Utah. The yet-to-be-organized 27-member panel also is charged with drafting a plan addressing the use of migrant workers and integration of immigrants.

"The mechanism for the Utah way is HB466," he said. "Rather than say here's a solution, here's a way to get to the right answers."

Having a relationship with Nuevo Leon, Ahlstrom said, will help Utah better see the issues that need addressing.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff brokered the bill, garnering bipartisan support in the Legislature. It passed the House and Senate with only one negative vote between them.

Ahlstrom moved his wife and six kids to Nuevo Leon's capital of Monterrey two years ago to run a venture capital firm. "I've been watching the immigration debate, but I've been watching it from the other side of the border," he said. "We're missing it on many levels."

Lawmakers, he said, are trying to solve an economic problem with a political hammer.

He called Utah's immigration enforcement bill "toothless" and said the guest worker program just pushes the problem down the road. Both are addressed in controversial HB116, which, unlike HB466, has raised constitutional questions.

"I believe the best immigration policy for Utah and the United States is building the Mexican economy," Ahlstrom said. "It's the most humanitarian way to do it."

To that end, Ahlstrom hosted a delegation of Nuevo Leon political and business leaders for the Real Salt Lake-Monterrey soccer match Wednesday. They have read and analyzed HB466.

"This is definitely a bridge," said Josephina Villarreal, president of the parliament in Nuevo Leon. "This is a unique model for Mexico and Latin America."

Hernan Salinas Wolberg, the minority party leader in Nuevo Leon's congress, said the bill was positively received in Mexico, "especially given that lots of (U.S.) states are going in the opposite direction regarding labor and migration."

"This is a groundbreaking opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship between Nuevo Leon and Utah, and hopefully this is a correct way for the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the U.S. on a national level," he said.

Ahlstrom said the Utah-Nuevo Leon relationship has been years in the making and was originally known as the Golden Spike initiative, a nod to the immigrant workers who helped forge the Transcontinental Railroad. He has taken several business groups back and forth between the two states to foster business links that put workers where they are needed.

Utah chose Nuevo Leon as a partner partly because it processes more nonimmigrant work visas than any place in the world. But it also has similar characteristics to Utah.

"We share a lot of things," said Paulino Decanini, a general surgeon in Monterrey, noting both are regional leaders in commerce, industry and education. In addition, he said both share a culture centered on families.

Email: romboy@desnews.com

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