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Brian Nicholson, OKespaol
Tony Yapias talks about immigration reform during a meeting in the offices of the Salt Lake Dream Team in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — As debate over proposed immigration reform heats up in the state Legislature and Congress, members of Utah's Latino community are pushing to define who they are and what they want.

At a meeting called by Tony Yapias, a longtime immigration activist and former director of the State Office of Hispanic Affairs, what began as a discussion of the possible impact of apparently imminent immigration reform soon shifted to a call for unity among Latinos. 

Yapias began his remarks Monday night by addressing the role amnesty has taken in the nationwide debate, accusing "extremist Republicans" of using talk of amnesty as a scare tactic and suggesting that immigration reform would mean zero consequences for immigrants.

Flanked by activist Archie Archuleta and immigration lawyer Mark Alvarez in the packed conference room of the Federacion de Clubes Mexicanos de Utah, Yapias said current reform proposals do not include amnesty. Furthermore, Yapias suggested that Utah's undocumented community doesn't want it.  

"We don't want amnesty," he said. "Most immigrant Latinos want to have an opportunity to come out of the shadows, and that's kind of what we're looking into."

Archuleta and Alvarez followed with a similar theme.

"The most important right we want right now is legality," Archuleta said, asking the group to stay up to date on how the debate is developing. "What we want … is that we be given the rights to walk the streets free and look for work, and be as free as we can be, and yet know that we have a long way to go before we become citizens."

But the trio's remarks were soon countered in a debate that vacillated back and forth between Spanish and English.

"I'm not afraid to say it: I'm an undocumented immigrant," Victor Puertas announced. "We're talking about terminology here. We're talking about amnesty. I don't care what amnesty is. … I want something better for my community."

More voices joined Puertas, demanding more discussion in order to better represent Utah's Latinos, as well as criticism regarding who should speak for the community.

Daniel Argueta, a former activist with the Salt Lake Dream Team, called dismissal of a possibility for amnesty a "disservice to our immigrant brothers and sisters."

"We have to bring it back and re-humanize our people," Argueta said. "We know they deserve it."

Yapias, Archuleta and others insisted that the key to preparing for the upcoming fight for reform will be to unite the community in future discussions.

"This is the first meeting," Estella Cortez said in Spanish, speaking from the back of the room. "We need to come to an agreement and support one another. … I think that all of these groups, we all want the same thing.

A stay-at-home mother, Cortez said she came to the United States 25 years ago. At 16, she did not come to study, but immediately began looking for work.

Be it through amnesty or a conditional process, which Cortez anticipates will be expensive, she announced the first thing she would do upon receiving the necessary paperwork would be to visit Mexico and the family she hasn't seen for more than two decades.

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero