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Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality

Published: Sunday, June 24 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

The majority of both legal and illegal immigrants in Utah come from Latin America, most from Mexico. Immigration advocates say there are 110,000 undocumented people in Utah.

"There's no inundation happening at all," said University of Idaho researcher Priscilla Salant, who studies population trends in the Mountain West.

The poll also revealed concerns that a more diverse Utah could result in higher crime rates. Forty-four percent of people polled said a more diverse Utah would have a "somewhat negative" or "very negative" impact on criminal activity in the state.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said crime statistics tell a different story.

"The fact is that we have more minorities living in Salt Lake City than we have in the past and crime has fallen dramatically. So I don't see how there's a correlation there," Burbank said.

In 2011, Salt Lake City experienced a 26-year low in Part 1 Crime. Part 1 crimes include homicide, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny (and motor vehicle theft) and arson.

"So for more than my entire career, crime has never been lower. It's a nice downward trend," Burbank said.

Overall crime in Utah shows decreases in violent crime, property crimes and the number of arrests, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Identification's 2011 Crime in Utah report. This is consistent with national crime statistics that reflect a drop in violent crime for the past four years.

Another "downside" of diversity raised by people who responded to the poll was the increased costs to education.

For decades, students of color in Utah have lagged behind their white peers on standardized achievement tests and high school graduation rates. As schools become more diverse and more populated, addressing these issues takes on greater significance, education leaders said.

Some 59 percent of Utahns polled said they strongly favor or somewhat favor committing more resources in an effort to close the achievement gap in Utah.

Brenda Hales, associate state superintendent for instructional services, said the sentiment is encouraging because one of her greatest concerns is that resources won't keep pace with the needs of a larger and more diverse public school population.

"This is not a burden and expense. It's an investment in our future," Hales said.

Another "downside" raised by poll respondents was the increased public assistance and public health programs. In this case, perception matches reality.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for public assistance or public health programs, with a few exceptions such as emergency care, state officials said. Because many immigrant families are of mixed immigration status, children who were born in the United States and are citizens could qualify for some public programs.

The University of Idaho's Salant was among a team of researchers who studied the impacts of southern Idaho's rapidly growing dairy industry. Dairy workers tend to be young men, Hispanic and foreign-born.

There were no impacts on crime. But the researchers said there were higher rates of childhood poverty and greater reliance on reduced-price school lunch programs.

The Idaho researchers, whose work included a telephone survey of more than 1,300 people and interviews of health care professionals, concluded that "community services like health care are not overwhelmed by the Hispanic population."

That finding was consistent with national research that documented that Hispanics receive health care at less than half the rate of non-Hispanics, the Idaho study authors wrote.

Absent access to traditional care, many people without insurance seek assistance from safety net programs such as community health centers. Others end up in the emergency room, the costliest health care alternative.

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