Utah shifts its path on fighting illegal immigration, considers integrating some

Thousands have rallied in Arizona this week to protest the state's uniquely strict new law cracking down on illegal immigrants.
By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

CENTERFIELD, UTAH -- Just weeks ago, Utah seemed destined to become the next state to draw a rigid line against illegal immigration. Lawmakers were completing work on a proposal similar to the one Arizona had approved, authorizing police to check the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally. Utah's governor, Gary R. Herbert (R), had made it clear he expected to sign a tough law early next year.

But rather suddenly, Utah officials are considering a different path, pondering measures that would help integrate undocumented workers already in the state but punish those who enter illegally in the future. Where Congress has failed to find common ground, Utah is trying to come up with a more comprehensive immigration policy.

"At one stage, all the talk was about an Arizona bill -- it was just like a runaway train," said Tony Yapias, a prominent Latino activist in Utah and host of a popular Spanish-language radio show. "But I haven't heard about that lately. Now there are other ideas, like a guest worker program, that have changed the direction of the debate."

President Obama signed a $600 million border security measure into law Friday, but a broader overhaul of immigration policy is stalled in Congress. As a result, national divisions over immigration policy are playing out state by state. Passage of Arizona's law this spring propelled the issue into the spotlight, prompting a rare challenge by the federal government and a decision by a federal judge to hold up key sections of the measure.

Polls show widespread support nationally for Arizona's approach, and more than a dozen other states are considering similar action. But the legal challenges and other reactions triggered by Arizona's law, including several calls to boycott the state, have caused some rethinking, at least in Utah.

Herbert, who for months had predicted he would sign a tough immigration bill, recently said the threat of boycotts could not be ignored.

"It's unfortunate, but that's part of what is happening in the marketplace," he said.

The tide also shifted last month after the release of 1,300 names of people in the state suspected of being illegal immigrants. Yapias said he received a call from Alex Segura, founder of the fiercely anti-illegal immigration Utah Minuteman Project, who disapproved of distributing the list because its release -- allegedly by two state workers -- was itself a violation of the law.

Yapias and Segura held a news conference calling for the immigration debate to be conducted in a "more civil manner."

Days later, Herbert hosted a two-hour meeting with business leaders, church members, law enforcement officials, legislators and other prominent voices, including Yapias. The outline for a guest worker program emerged, backed by the state's chamber of commerce and attorney general as well as state Sen. Howard Stephenson (R).

"Everyone who has an interest in this issue needs to be at the table to express their points of view," Herbert said. "If we do that, then I think the process will lead us to a conclusion -- and hopefully a consensus conclusion -- that almost everyone can feel good about. We will be looking at this from a Utah perspective."

Herbert has said it is possible that Republicans in the state could agree to a hybrid bill that calls for a guest worker program and greater enforcement.

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