SALT LAKE CITY — Illegal immigration is harmful to legal immigrants and a growing number believe those who cross the border unlawfully should pay the consequences, said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom during a rally at the Utah Capitol Wednesday.
"People need to know there are legal immigrants, thousands of them, who support upholding the law," said Sandstrom.
About 80 people crowded into the foyer of the Utah State Capitol's West Office Building Wednesday to show support for Sandstrom's bill, which is similar to an Arizona law passed earlier this year that empowers state police to enforce federal immigration laws. The rally, organized by the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, started out quiet but ended up in a shoving match that had to be broken up by the Utah Highway Patrol.
"My immigration bill, the Utah Immigration Enforcement Act, is alive and well," Sandstrom said. "This bill will become law in the state of Utah."
Arturo Morales-Llan, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1992, announced to the assembly the formation of a new lobbying group, Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Enforcement. He founded the group, he said, because "for a long time I keep hearing 'the Hispanic community thinks this,' 'the immigrant community thinks that,' and I just felt that, no, they don't speak for me. I am Hispanic, but I am first and foremost an American."
Morales-Llan told the assembly of his journey to citizenship. On the day he got his green card, he said, he took an oath to defend the constitution and the laws of the United States. For that reason, he supports Sandstrom's bill.
"Sadly, for far too long the laws of this exceptional country have been ignored, violated and been made a mockery by those who come to this nation illegally," he said.
Sandstrom, R-Orem, called Morales-Llan "the face of immigration done right."
Since the Utah Compact, a petition that urges legislators to approach immigration reform with consideration for immigrants as human beings, was signed last week, Sandstrom said, "there has been a lot of talk about compassion." The Utah Compact, which garnered support from the Catholic and Mormon churches, urges the state to leave immigration reform in the hands of the federal government, condemns separating families through deportation and emphasizes immigration's contributions to the economy.
But, Sandstrom said, having compassion and upholding the rule of law are not mutually exclusive principles.
"I believe firmly that the bill that's being presented, the Utah Immigration Enforcement Act, is a principled bill," he said. "It does take into consideration compassion. We do realize we are dealing with human beings. We realize that, but that does not mean we should not uphold the rule of law in the state of Utah."
Both Sandstrom and Morales-Llan urged people not to forget the people who are affected negatively by illegal immigration. Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who also spoke at the rally, said "we tend to forget that by tolerating illegal immigrants, many legal immigrants and many potential immigrants are harmed."
Hecklers from the crowd, carrying signs that said things like "Fund Education not Deportation," repeatedly interrupted the presentation. As the speakers exited the room, critics began shouting after them. Sandstrom's supporters in the audience jumped up to defend him. In the heat of the moment, someone yelled to police officers that they were being assaulted.
"You look at the Utah compact and it calls for civility, yet one side feels perfectly comfortable interrupting a presentation just because they disagree," Herrod said. "This is what we are asking for, we are asking for that type of civility where we can actively discuss the facts."
Tony Yappias, a leader in the Latino community who attended the rally, said he finds Sandstrom's interpretation of compassion "disheartening.
"It just doesn't make sense," he said. "How can you say it's compassionate to separate families and put people under stress?"
He pointed out that few legal immigrants showed up to the rally. The majority of the crowd was made up of Minutemen, he said.
"I would argue that illegal immigrants benefit society far more than they cost it," he said.
Mark C. Alvarez, an attorney and Latino activist, observed that the irreverent rally was illustrative of what the discussion about immigration in Utah has become.
"It's just name calling," he said. "On one side it's, 'Illegal! Illegal! Illegal!' On the other side it's, "Racist! Racist! Racist!"