Charles Reed, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
This Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shows a scene from a tour of South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Half a dozen families who were separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border are still detained in Texas months after reuniting with their children.

SALT LAKE CITY — When do words strung together equal more than the sum of their parts?

The answer is the same as to the question of when you can get Utah lawmakers to vote against family values. It is when those words enter the twilight zone of partisan politics.

Members of the Utah Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee came face to face with a resolution late last week that was virtually dripping with political overtones, as well as traditional Utah family values — quite a load considering the words themselves seemed benign. Scrambling to save face, the committee’s Republican majority took the only safe course — it punted.

Sen. Gene Davis, a Democrat who has represented Salt Lake City variously in the House and Senate since Ronald Reagan was president, is the sponsor of this verbal Rorschach test, Senate Resolution 1, which concerns the separation of families along the southern border and urges Washington to stop doing it.

You probably can see where this is going.

Davis said his intent wasn’t to be partisan, but I’m suspecting he’s smarter, or perhaps more cunning, than that. He wrote the resolution carefully, omitting any reference to the Trump administration. It urges Congress and “policymakers within the federal government” to stop the separation of migrant parents from children, and it expressly says it’s talking about those seeking “legal immigration” through asylum or other means.

The resolution is filled with other language familiar to many in Utah. It contains phrases such as “the role of government in respect to the family should be to support and preserve the family,” and “the best interests of the child should always be the government's objective when the government takes action in relation to a child.” These strike chords that easily get heads nodding — but perhaps only in any other context, when people don’t feel obliged to take cover behind political litmus tests.

In this case, clearly uncomfortable Republicans on the committee seemed to begin searching for a credible way out — other than perhaps literally bolting for the exits — as soon as Davis had finished his presentation.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said “I really sympathize,” but he didn’t trust the stories he had read in the news media about the separations despite, apparently, Senate hearings on the matter.

Others said they just didn’t feel ready to support the measure, whatever that means, or they referred to illegal immigration and concerns about children perhaps being in danger from abusive parents.

Davis’ timing seems a bit odd. President Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy reached its climax last June, when he issued an executive order ending the separation of families, although reports persist that the practice continues, as well as that many families have not been reunited.

But the Utah Legislature meets in general session only 45 days each year, beginning in January, making a more timely resolution problematic. Besides, as some in the committee meeting noted, it’s just a resolution, which has no force at all other than to register the feelings of a small Western state.

And yet it seemed to have quite a bit of force for those at the committee meeting.

In the end, one of the few Democrats on the committee, Sen. Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City, made a motion to pass the resolution to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation. Vickers countered that with a substitute motion to adjourn, which, according to the rules, is not debatable. The meeting ended with no one having to go on the record against family values. The resolution may never be seen again.

15 comments on this story

The 21st century seems filled with such verbal twilight zones. They don’t serve anybody well. People scramble to escape the unstable cobblestones of facts and retreat to the perceived safety of partisan corners.

Meanwhile, real children are separated from parents, no one is engaged in practical border security or immigration reform discussions and a new migrant caravan has just arrived at the border.

In the end, a resolution in the Utah Senate accounts for little. But what it reveals about us can count for a lot.