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As Utah's immigration battle brews, Sen. Luz Robles maintains her voice

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 7:50 p.m. MDT

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It's not a fancy community council room with a polished pulpit and big, leather chairs where leaders direct the city's business with pomp and circumstance. It's the back room of a public library in Rose Park, a musty, boxy place with shabby carpet, plastic seats and glaring fluorescent lights. The people who meet there don't wear ties and shiny shoes. They're the kind of folks who sit back during an important meeting, the dust of the day still settling off their work pants, with one well-worn tennis shoe propped up on the chair in front of them.

But — oddly enough — state Sen. Luz Robles doesn't look out of place standing at the front of the room in her tweed suit and high heels. With a red Hello Kitty folder in hand, pencil stub poised to take notes, she chats with the assembled people like they're old friends — neighbor to neighbor.

Robles represents these people.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

Not just in the Utah Senate, but also, to a degree, in a broader sense. Utah is in the midst of demographic transformation. Year by year, the state grows more diverse — in race and culture. An immigrant, a Latina and a single mother, Robles is the face of Utah's future.

She is just 34 years old and a relative political newcomer, but her approach to immigration reform has thrust her into the spotlight in recent months. Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has crafted a novel state solution to the immigration problem that has piqued the interest of legislators across the country. If it works, experts say, it could change the tone of the nation's debate.

SB60 suggests issuing illegal immigrants already living in Utah an "accountability card" that would give them the right to work without changing their legal status. Immigrants would have to pass a criminal background check and learn English to obtain the permit.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Immigration experts have hailed Robles' immigration bill — and Robles herself — as "ground breaking" and "creative." The bill they say, crafted by a new American who understands the Latino community, is perfectly in tune with what immigrants want: not citizenship, but the opportunity to work and live without fear. If the bill were to pass, they predict it may have a similar effect on the nation as Arizona's SB1070, which mobilized local police to enforce federal immigration laws. More than 20 states, including Utah, copied Arizona's legislation.

While some see Robles' bill as an anti-American piece of policy that panders to illegal immigrants. Others, from the Latino community, believe Robles has lost touch with her roots. She is giving immigrants false hope, they say, because the bill is unconstitutional. Legally, they argue, the federal government cannot give a state the power to allow undocumented immigrants to work.

Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Senator  Luz Robles and Judi Hillman, Executive Director of the Utah Health Policy Project, meet before a Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee at the Capitol  on January 19, 2011.   (Photo/Laura Seitz) (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Senator Luz Robles and Judi Hillman, Executive Director of the Utah Health Policy Project, meet before a Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee at the Capitol on January 19, 2011. (Photo/Laura Seitz) (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

To spend a day with Luz Robles, as she travels from Rose Park to the marbled halls of the legislature, is to see a woman trying to navigate two very different worlds. Like a growing number of Utah's Hispanics, she stands in a difficult place, straddling the line between her heritage and her future.

Up until 1965, 70 percent of U.S. visas were available only to natives in three countries — the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany — and went mostly unused. There were long waiting lists, in the meantime, for the small number of visas set aside for people of other nationalities. Since President Lyndon Johnson changed immigration laws in 1965, putting people of all nations on equal footing, nearly 40 million immigrants have come to the United States. About half have come from Latin America.

As immigrants have poured in, birthrates among whites have fallen. The country's population growth now comes from Hispanics, blacks and Asians, according to the Brookings Institution. Already, whites represent less than half of all 3-year-olds. If immigration continues on the same trend, minorities will outnumber whites by 2040.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Utah, which is historically known for having "a lot of babies but not a lot of immigration," is behind the national curve when it comes to demographic trends, said Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah. But data indicates the formerly homogeneous state is quickly catching up with the nation.

Immigration today has a lot in common with immigration of years past, Perlich said. An influx of immigrants has always produced backlash of sorts in the United States. As the federal government continues to sit on its hands when it comes to immigration reform, illegal immigration has become a hot topic in nearly every state legislature this year. But in a lot of ways, the immigrants of the 21st Century differ from those of the past.

Traditionally, over the course of a few generations, U.S. immigrants detach their sense of identity from the old country and bind it to the new, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Modern immigrants, like Robles, however, inhabit two cultures. Only 33 percent of second generation Hispanics and 50 percent of third generation Hispanics identify themselves first as Americans, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Only 22 percent of young Latinos say their parents have encouraged them to speak only English. Young Latinos are more likely to identify themselves as ethnic minorities than their parents.

Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November.   (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"The melting pot is dead," the Pew Hispanic Center declared in a recent report about the acculturation of young Latinos. "Long live the salad bowl."

Robles has been accused of being both not American enough and too American. Deseret News readers criticize Robles for having the "gall to post an American flag on her web site" when she clearly places illegal immigrants' needs above those of U.S. citizens. The Latino community criticizes her for sacrificing her culture for success.

"The truth is Luz has an image problem with the Latino community," said Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah. "She's become a part of the system and she's forgotten who she is — all for political gain."

It's a brisk and windy January afternoon, and Robles is late. Striding through the halls of the Utah State Capitol, she keeps a purposeful pace, faux-snake-skin shoes snapping a brisk beat against the marble floors. The rhythm of her descent from the Democratic caucus to a budget meeting on the fourth floor, slows frequently, though: here to greet, with sparkling eyes and arms flung wide open, a stern, graying fellow senator; there to promise, smiling warmly, a future lunch meeting. She speaks with an accent — English is not her first language — but she chatters on like an American teenager, peppering her sentences with "like," "totally" and "awesome."

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

On the way to her meeting, Robles meets her new intern.

He is — like her last intern — a Latino. Robles chuckles a little when she learns his last name: Espanol.

"For some reason they always give me the Spanish speakers," she said.

The intern smiles awkwardly. It's his first day at the capitol and his shoulders are so full of tension they're creeping up toward his ears. Robles, noticing, swiftly makes a joke about Brigham Young University, where he attends. She got both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Utah.

A bystander in the elevator observes, giving the young man a quick wink, "Luz will take good care of you."

State Sen. Luz Robles (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) State Sen. Luz Robles (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

Robles lives in a gentrifying section of Rose Park, where Utah's growing diversity is particularly noticeable. Area schools are 92 and 94 percent minority. Take a walk through the Rose Park library, where Robles often holds community meetings, and you'll see Hispanic and black children working on the computers, browsing the bookshelves and chatting over homework. Whites are the minority.

In some ways, the state is still poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of the emerging population. As a result, minorities in Utah — and Latinos in particular — are more likely to drop out of high school or experience a teen pregnancy than their peers across the nation. In Utah, 20 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of blacks live in poverty, in comparison to 9 percent of whites, according to the Community Action Partnership of Utah. The health department reports Utah minorities have higher obesity rates and are more likely to develop diabetes.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"One size fits all isn't working for this new generation," Perlich said. "This new generation is minority majority."

Robles can identify with the difficulties many of the children in her district face. The daughter of two Mexican college professors, she was born and raised in Mexico, and didn't immigrate to the United States until her early 20s.

Her parents weren't rich, but they were well enough off to fill their Tijuana house with books and put Robles and her younger brother through private school. As a teenager, Robles got a student visa and crossed the United States/Mexico border to attend high school in San Diego.

Every day, she and her brother loaded up the family's junky '89 Chevrolet Beretta with friends and took the I-5 to Mexico. They spent hours caught in line at the border; hundreds hoped to cross. To pass the time, they chatted and did homework. Traffic was tangled and lawless. Sometimes people with big trucks would drive up onto the sidewalk to pass a long line of cars.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador)

"Those of us who couldn't do that were left to silly competitions with other drivers to see who could snatch up opening spots first or cut into each other's lines," Robles' brother Mario Alfonso Diaz de la Rosa said. "Very entertaining and never a dull moment."

On the way home, they'd often see families running hand-in-hand into oncoming traffic in a desperate attempt to make it to the United States without a visa.

"You would see them spring out from behind the gates in an instant, whole families holding hands, children in tow," he said. "Must be terrifying."

When it came to colleges, Robles parents, devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pushed their daughter to extend her student visa and attend Brigham Young University.

"I told them, 'I'll go to Utah, but I'm going to the U,'" Robles said.

It was nice to be surrounded by other Mormons, she said. But Robles, who, even as a student in San Diego, had always been surrounded by other Latinos, struggled with the state's lack of diversity.

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

She started tutoring Hispanics children, helping them to read and write English, because "I was looking for a place where I could find someone I could relate to," she said.

What she found was a window into another life.

These children — the children of immigrants like those Robles once watched brave the freeway — fled Mexico to escape poverty and hunger. In poverty with little education, their troubles followed them into America.

"I started hearing the stories of kids having Spanish being the primary language, about their limited access to programs and about disparities in health care," Robles said. "I was learning about this other side of being an immigrant and I wanted to help them."

The desire only increased when she married her college sweetheart, got her green card and eventually earned her citizenship.

State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.     (Brian Nicholson, El Observador) State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador)

"You breathe differently when you become a U.S. citizen," she said. "The first time you go and vote — exercise that right — it's just priceless. I felt like I truly had the power to change the world."

Robles would spend the next decade of her life dedicated to serving the minority community. With a bachelor's degree in business marketing and a master's degree in public administration, she cycled through jobs in interpreting, marketing and teaching. She spent some time as the state coordinator for domestic violence and worked as a health care policy analyst for Utah Policy Issues, a private non-profit that focuses on eliminating poverty in Utah.

"I think people have callings in life," she said. "Like some people are meant to be artists. I'm not good at art. But I've always provided service. I am good at helping people."

State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) State Sen. Luz Robles talks to Peggy Wilson and Jim Grady, of the Coalition of Utah Progressives, at the Utah Capitol recently.__State Sen. Luz Robles during last year's legislative session. Experts have praised her creative thinking on immigration.__Robles announces her immigration bill during a press conference last November. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

With Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, Robles established the Center for Multicultural Health. She fought to get translators into health institutions and to issue health campaign literature in Spanish.

"Utah needed to bend over backwards to address health disparities in minority populations," Hilman said. "Our health care system was designed to serve a homogenous population."

Robles also took on the cause of battered immigrant women and established a toll-free crisis hot line to help Utah families affected by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services get access to state benefits. As the first director of the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, Robles helped to establish chambers of commerce for the black, Pacific Islander, Asian and Latin-American communities.

Luz Robles (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Luz Robles (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"Luz is a very passionate, gifted individual who is going places," Hilman said. "She will go as far as she possibly can go to bring her vision of a more humane world to fruition."

The lights are on in the Channel 2 News studio. The carmeraman is standing around, drumming his fingers against his slacks. Robles has rushed from the Capitol, where she argued for more money for health and human services programs, to this appointment downtown. She glances at her watch wearily. Ever since she proposed her immigration reform bill last November, she has become the go-to representative for the Hispanic perspective, even though many from the community see her stance as too accommodating. She is one of only four Hispanics in the legislature and she has become the unequivocal face of the group.

Today, Robles is here to debate the merits of her bill with Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, who wants stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants and employers who hire them. The two politicians are often pitted together in atmospheres like this one.

Sandstrom is late. Robles smiles a little.

"I can give his part of the presentation, too," she jokes. "I've heard it enough times. I practically have it memorized."

When Sandstrom shows up and the cameras switch on, Robles often has to bite her lip to keep herself from interrupting. Illegal immigrants cost the state money, Sandstrom says. Robles doesn't agree with his numbers. She sits quietly on her stool, but her eyes flash with anger.

"It depends where you get your statistics," she says later, in the safety of her orange SUV.

She stuffs a handful of Saltine crackers into her mouth as she drives. "I got involved by default," she says. "People assume, 'Oh, Luz, she's Hispanic. I'm sure she'll know about immigration."

She says it as a joke and rolls her eyes. "I don't understand what the undocumented go through — I never had to suffer like that. But I know what it's like to be the outsider."

Robles decided to run for senate after she overheard legislators bickering over how much money the state spent educating the American-born children of illegal immigrants.

"Those were American citizens — American citizen children," she said. "Nobody was standing up for them. I decided I needed to do it myself."

Robles has long been a vocal advocate for undocumented immigrant rights, but until Arizona passed SB1070, the idea of a state solution to the country's immigration problems had never crossed her mind. After Sandstrom announced plans to pursue similar legislation in Utah, rumors started flying: the legislature was going to hold a special session to institute an Arizona-style immigration law.

At first, Robles was worried. Then, one day, lying in bed with her 6-year-old daughter, checking her e-mail on her laptop, she ran across a political cartoon that stopped her heart. The drawing depicted a little Hispanic girl, faced with roadblocks created by Arizona's harsh immigration policy, inquiring of her mother, "What's wrong with me?"

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh. That could be my little girl,'" said Robles. Her daughter, snuggled up next to her, had "the same bangs, the same little pony tail" as the girl in the drawing.

"Is this really what America is about: racial profiling?" Robles worried.

Two weeks later, she recruited Paul Mero, director of the Sutherland Institute, and together they got to work creating an alternative state solution.

"I went into panic mode," Robles said.

The resulting piece of legislation is "the most complex public policy" Mero has ever dealt with, he said. Immigration experts called it the "most innovative state solution" to be introduced thus far in the United States.

"We don't want to drive undocumented immigrants under ground," Mero said.

The bill has drawn criticism from the left and the right.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, called it "borderline dishonest because it's not possible." In order to implement her plan, Robles would have to get a waiver from the federal government. Lawyers have questioned whether such a waiver would be constitutional.

"An immigrant like her should know better than to give immigrants false hope," Yapias said. "She might get it passed, but she'll never get federal approval."

He said Robles never consulted the Hispanic community when constructing the bill.

"We would have liked to have had some say," he said.

Since the legislative session started, the threats have been rolling in — via Facebook, e-mail and phone.

Robles got a concealed gun permit on principle, but she's one of the few legislators who doesn't keep a pistol tucked inside her suit coat. Sometimes after an immigration debate or press conference, when the people, impassioned and angry, paw at her and growl threats through their teeth, she's grateful to be walking with her policy rival, Sandstrom.

"I feel safer," she said. "He packs heat."

She used to cry when people would send her hate mail. Sometimes she still does. But for the most part, the discussion of immigration policy has toughened Robles' skin.

"Luz is a warrior," Mero said. "She's not afraid to fight for what she believes in."

It's a month later, and Robles is sitting in the Senate Chamber, anxiously tuning in and out of the online broadcast of the House's discussion of Sandstrom's bill on Feb. 18. The debate, filled with heated cries against "amnesty," lasts two nail-biting hours. When Robles hears the vote — 58-15 in favor — she isn't surprised, but she feels a little sick.

"There's a lot of misconception about the bill," she says with a sad tone in her voice. "We are so limited in terms of what we can do for enforcement."

In her quest — the quest for an immigrant-friendly state solution — she remains undaunted. Robles still thinks her bill can pass.

"My bill is still gonna have a fair chance," she said. "I'm positive the legislators will consider all the options and vote for the best approach."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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