SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated with a discussion some say has turned hateful, a broad swath of business, political and religious leaders joined forces Thursday to speak out against tough, enforcement-only immigration policy and urge legislators to take a gentler, more "humane" approach to reform.
State legislators who have been lobbying for an aggressive charge against illegal immigration, in the meantime, remained undeterred.
Similar arguments are taking place in states across the country as local governments struggle to figure out how to pick up the pieces of a broken federal immigration system. While states lack the constitutional power to grant citizenship or rework the visa system, "states can either welcome illegal immigration in their jurisdiction or they can discourage illegal immigration," said Jon Feere, legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies. Twenty-two states have followed in Arizona's footsteps, filing bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants and push for more deportations, but many states are gearing up to make their states more immigrant friendly.
"Before the Legislature begins discussing policy, there needs to be a broad public debate about our culture," said Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative, Utah-based think tank. "We have to ask ourselves, 'What kind of society do we want in Utah?' "
The Sutherland Institute, along with the Utah Attorney General's Office, the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and United Way, kicked off that conversation Thursday with the introduction of the Utah Compact, a document outlining five principles "to guide Utah's immigration discussion."
"In meetings with other groups it became evident that there was a groundswell of business and community leaders who were concerned with the tone of the discussion and the direction it was taking," said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber, the largest business association in the state. "We felt we were part of a silent majority and we needed to find a way to break the silence."
In a ceremony at the state Capitol, big names like former Gov. Olene Walker and former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn signed the Utah Compact. Later in the day, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement of support.
The LDS Church statement called the Utah Compact a "responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform."
"As a worldwide church dealing with many complex issues across the globe," the statement said, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotes broad, foundational principles that have worldwide application." It went on to add, "Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society. Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws."
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said the Utah Compact is a direct jab at his bill, which supports aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. He believes "the silent majority" supports the bill. Since the Utah Compact was released to the public, his e-mail has been flooded with support, he said.
"The majority of people see our state being ruined by illegal immigration, and they want something done," he said.
The Utah Compact calls on Utah to focus law enforcement resources on "criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code."
"We are different from Arizona," said Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who signed the compact. "We do things differently here. We want to show people we can do something about this issue in a compassionate and lawful way."
Enforcement is not the only way to uphold the rule of law, Shurtleff said.
"The key is to distinguish between federal responsibilities and state responsibilities," he said. "They're responsible for securing the border. We here in Utah are responsible for enforcing state laws."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who has been open about his support of tough immigration policy, argued, however, that states enforce federal laws on a regular basis. Bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion are all federal laws, he said.
"A law is a law," he said. "I don't think law enforcement should pick and choose which laws they enforce."
Furthermore, he said, most illegal immigrants are not merely in violation of civil code. Seventy-five percent have a stolen or falsified identity, he said. Identity theft is a felony.
"I don't want to be unfair or unjust to anybody," he said. "I don't support being violent or disrespectful. But if you broke the law, there are ramifications."
The compact also stresses the importance of keeping families together and urges legislators to consider the economy when making decisions about immigration policy.
Deborah Bayle, president of the United Way of Salt Lake, signed the compact on behalf of her organization because, she said, "our mission is to help people." It's important to remember, she said, that immigration policy affects all immigrants — not just those who are undocumented — because of the way people are intertwined.
"We do think families belong together," she said. "Of course, we do not condone illegal behavior, but we think we need to make sure we address this issue without rancor or hatred."
Carpenter said the Salt Lake Chamber has some "serious economic concerns" about policy decisions that put immigrants in a precarious position.
"If we have a mass self deportation, if immigrants decide 'Utah's not the place I want to be,' our economy will suffer," he said. Immigrants pay taxes and shop at Utah stores. While Utah's economy is on the rebound, he said, "it's not a decision-proof rebound. This really isn't the time to mess with the number of consumers."
Sandstrom said he agreed that families belong together. But, he argued, his law doesn't tear families apart. If a parent is deported, they are free to take their U.S. citizen children with them.
"Most people who commit crimes have a family," he said. "Prosecuting that crime will break up that family. There is no way around that. We need to be careful how we address the issue, but, at the same time, there has to be a consequence for actions."
When it comes to the economy, Sandstrom criticized the Salt Lake Chamber for worrying about "profit over principle."
While illegal immigrants do pay into the system, he said, they cost much more in welfare, education and free medical care.
"I have a hard time saying we need to turn a blind eye to someone breaking the law because it's good for our economy," he said.
The Utah Compact calls for a "humane approach" to immigration that supports the ideal of a free society. Utah has a history of inclusion, drafter's wrote, and immigration policy should reflect that.
Sutherland's Mero said the compact represents Utahns' desires to remain a "welcoming place for all people of good will" and not to become a police state.Comment on this story
"There is a diverse group of community leaders in Utah who see undocumented immigrants living among us as human beings and not as law breakers," said Mero, who signed the compact. "We're not about to round them up or starve them out. We are going to help them out so they can continue to live, work and raise their families without worrying about who's looking over their shoulder."
Sandstrom said he doesn't see his bill as inhumane. It simply upholds the law.
"It's flat out wrong to ignore the problems illegal immigration is causing in our society," he said.