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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Bishop John C. Wester signs a document known as the Utah Compact during a press conference where community leaders gathered in support of immigration reform at the Sstate Capitol in Salt Lake City Nov. 11, 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — When community activist Tony Yapias first heard about the Utah Compact last fall, he had a lot of questions.

"I didn't know what the Utah Compact was. What is this thing? Where did this come from?"

On the eve of the first anniversary of community, business, political and faith leaders publicly endorsing the document, Yapias calls the statement of principles "one of the inspired documents of our time."

The compact, signed Nov. 11, 2010, outlined principles to guide the immigration debate, urging federal solutions and policies that did not separate families. Some 4,500 people have signed the document online at theutahcompact.com in the past year.

In an interview Wednesday, Yapias said he believes that the compact and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' public statements on immigration issues have helped shape the national discourse over illegal immigration.

The latest example of that impact was the outcome of the Arizona's election Tuesday, in which Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, author of the state's hard-line immigration laws, was recalled. He is the first Arizona legislator to lose a recall election. 

Yapias said the creation of the Arizona Compact, which was modeled after the Utah Compact, helped shift public opinion away from a strict enforcement approach.

"That had a lot to do with Sen. Russell Pearce's loss yesterday," Yapias said.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff agrees that Utah's approach to the immigration issue has had national implications.

"This has reached the federal government. You see groups all over the country looking at Utah. We're trying to get other states to pattern other compacts after the state of Utah's compact," Shurtleff said.

If the states want to attempt to address immigration reform, the way to go about it is to follow Utah's example, which does not take a hard enforcement line, he said. "It all starts with that compact of principles."

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the Utah Compact "was and is an important part of the discussion on illegal immigration."

The compact recognizes that immigration is a federal responsibility, he said.

"In light of the failure of the federal government to address not only enforcement but other aspects of the illegal immigration issue, the Compact provides a set of principles and framework for discussion of what any immigration policy should achieve," Bramble said.

Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, was one of the original signers of the Utah Compact.

"Right out of the chute, we knew within two months that it was a game changer. It turned public opinion 180 degrees in Utah," he said.

Prior to the public signing of the document and the release of a statement by the LDS Church, public opinion polls showed 70 percent of Utahns favored an Arizona-like approach to immigration policy.

Afterward, public opinion shifted to crafting more compassionate, reasoned public policies. 

"It's almost like it permissioned people to be their better selves," Mero said.

The LDS Church also weighed in by calling for a compassionate approach to the immigration issue and supporting the compact. "For the church to speak about an issue three times in a year, it's unprecedented," Yapias said.

Less than a month after a public signing ceremony at the Utah State Capitol, the New York Times praised the Utah Compact on its editorial pages.

It said, in part, "A clear expression of good sense and sanity than Utah's would be hard to find."

The architects of the compact, the editorial said, "are conservative Republicans who have simply decided not to toe the simplistic party line."

The Utah Compact, Yapias said, steered Utah lawmakers from the more hard-line laws passed in other states, which have been challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"If Utah had not come out with Utah Compact at this time a year ago, or if we waited until after the Legislature, we would have had, without question, a similar law to Arizona's," Yapias said.

Shurtleff has described Utah's controversial immigration law, HB497, as "Arizona-lite."

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While he believes Utah's law differs from Arizona's law, the Department of Justice is  reviewing the legislation to determine whether it will intervene in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Utah and the National Immigration Law Center. That lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the law, which was signed into law in March along with three other immigration bills.

Yapias said he hopes that the outcome of the Arizona recall election signals a change in how the nation will deal with immigration.

"I believe we're in a U-turn now. Maybe it says something about how we're going to deal with the issue in the future — working together to resolve the issue rather than instilling fear in the community." 

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Peter Samore

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com