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Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
Senator Luz Robles talks with state attorney general, Mark Shurtleff about immigration reform during a debate, sponsored by the Sutherland Institute, at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi Friday.

LEHI — Some of the most ardent and articulate voices on the issue of illegal immigration in Utah and what to do about it sounded off Friday night in a lively debate, making plain that any solution to the problem will be hard fought.

Hosted by the Sutherland Institute, the event at Thanksgiving Point was intended as a prelude to Monday's start of the Utah legislative session, which is expected to be the stage for a variety of competing bills tackling the subject.

"Resolved: Utah Should Enforce Federal Immigration Laws," featured two teams of five panelists representing opposing positions.

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is pushing for passage of his immigration reform bill this session, argued that Utah policymakers need to step up to the plate where the federal government has failed miserably.

"My bill is not the ugly monster everybody has made it out to be," Sandstrom said, stressing that it only dictates that the law should be enforced as it was intended to be.

His opponents, however, countered that it is not Utah's job to take on immigration enforcement in the vacuum of a failed federal policy.

"We might as well hold back the tide as do enforcement," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.

Bramble said it is not practical for the state to require law enforcement to verify citizenship if a person is stopped for another violation, which is part of Sandstrom's bill. Such "rounding up" of a population would be an egregious affront to human rights, he added.

But Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said allowing people to stay after they have broken the law to come to the United States is an insult to millions of people around the world who desire the same thing.

"I would simply ask that you take the time to ask a legal immigrant how they feel about illegal immigration. ...We shouldn't get to determine who gets to come in by who is willing to break the law," he said.

Depending which side spoke, multiple people in the crowd numbering nearly 700 would stand, cheer, boo, or jeer, despite the moderator's earlier plea to keep it civil and refrain from boisterous outbursts.

Such emotion was evident on stage as well as Arturo Morales described his journey to become a U.S. citizen, taking that oath in 1997. He later led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance and said he has been accused of being a racist and bigot because of his support of Sandstrom's measure.

"I happen to be a Hispanic born in Mexico City, but the United States is my home," he said. "America is the beacon of hope... but the very first indication that (someone) has love for this nation is that they are doing everything by the book."

Paul Mero, head of the Sutherland Institute, was passionately blunt with his rejection of the Sandstrom solution, arguing that the cross-deputization of state and local law enforcement is a waste of resources and flies in the face of state sovereignty.

"We have no authority or power to deport people. We do not have have the means... " But Mero said even beyond the legally impaired premise of Sandstrom's bill is the inhumanity it purports to levy on neighbors, friends and fellow Utahns.

"It only serves to drive these neighbors underground with the dismantling of families and picking on children"

Several references were made throughout the evening to the Utah Compact, which was introduced in November and bears the signatures of 3,000 people — many of them top leaders of churches and businesses. The compact has been touted as a Utah solution to the problem that incorporates fairness and compassion, acknowledging the importance of families and urging the adoption of reasonable solutions. Supporters want to use it as blueprint for policymakers to find an alternative to a controversial Arizona law dealing with illegal immigration. The Sutherland Institute also announced the launch of NotAZ.org, a website created to push alternatives to the Arizona measure.

Mero said NotAZ.org is intended to help stop the spread of enforcement-only legislation and provide alternatives.

Ironically, the desire to host a civil debate ended on a sour note with a call to Lehi police. Daniel Argueta said he and several Latino friends were mingling outside the debate hall after it ended when security guards asked them to leave. Argueta said he called police to document the incident because he felt like the group was being harassed.

"Nobody else was asked to leave. And we weren't doing anything," he said.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com