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

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; A01

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.

Hope of integration option

State Sen. Luz Robles (D), an immigrant from Mexico, said that just a few weeks ago she was resigned to her state signing an Arizona-style law next year.

Now she is busy working with a broad group of legislators, including Republicans, on what she calls an "integration program" aimed at helping undocumented immigrants if they pay a fine and agree to learn English.

"We all have different opinions, but we're all trying to find an alternative to Arizona," she said. "At least we agree that is not the route to take."

But others, including Segura, think integration programs would worsen the state's problems with illegal immigration.

"Just even the mention of it is going to be a disaster for Utah, encouraging people to come from Arizona and other states," Segura said. "It sends out a message that it is a friendly sanctuary state."

The prospects for passage of an alternative approach are far from certain, but news of it has reached the Latino community in the small turkey-farming town of Centerfield, two hours south of Salt Lake City.

Yapias gathered there recently with immigrant families, who plied him with questions. Could they be affected by the federal court battle over Arizona's law? Are their names on the list of 1,300?

But much of the attention was focused on the guest worker plan that would finally allow many to work legally in the state they have called home for years.

"Could it really work here? Do you think it will materialize?" one woman asked in Spanish.

"It is great that it has come along to distract from the threat of an Arizona bill," Yapias replied. "Hopefully, it has got rid of that."

Yapias had met with Centerfield families after the list of names was released, which sent ripples of anxiety through the community. One person in the audience said he learned that his name was on the list when he was called by a television reporter.

"I know I broke the law by coming here," said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his status. "But since then, I have done everything I can, like pay tax and pay bills on time, to ensure I don't break the rules."

He said he did not think that federal immigration authorities would use the list, but he worried that vigilante groups might target those on it.

Still standing firm

Those attempting to fend off anti-illegal immigration legislation are acutely aware that the new spirit of cooperation could ebb as quickly as it formed.

An April poll by the Deseret News and KSL (Channel 5) found that 65 percent of Utah voters wanted Arizona-type legislation. Rep. Stephen Sandstrom (R), the state lawmaker who has been drawing up the Arizona copycat bill, unveiled it at a news conference Friday. He said in an interview that he had "reworked some of the language" after the federal court ruling holding up much of the Arizona law. But, he added, he did not water it down and would not shy away if it were challenged in court.

"It's not quite as punitive as the Arizona bill, but I need to emphasize that this is still a very hard-hitting bill," he said. "It's a bill specifically targeting Utah issues."

Sandstrom said he had not included in his draft legislation measures to clamp down on day laborers, which was part of the Arizona law. He added that, unlike in Arizona, his proposal would clarify that police could question the immigration status of only the person stopped for a violation, not others in the vehicle.

He said some parts of his bill would go further than Arizona's law, including giving state welfare workers the right to check the immigration status of some applicants.

But even Sandstrom has not been immune to the shift in direction, suggesting this week that although he would not change his bill, he would be open to additional proposals aimed at integrating immigrant workers.

The fate of immigration policy depends in part on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful broker in Utah politics.

Advocates for immigrants worry that unless the church comes down decisively against an Arizona-style measure, Sandstrom's bill could survive without challenge.

Church officials have suggested that they favor a comprehensive approach. Ahead of last month's roundtable discussion, church spokesman Michael Purdy said politicians needed to find solutions "in the best interests of all whose lives will be impacted by their actions."

To Yapias, who remembers as a teenager standing in line for hours at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, hoping to join his father in Wyoming, the heightened debate in Utah is just the latest sign that Congress should act on comprehensive immigration reform.

Robles suggests that the plans for guest worker programs and other ways to integrate immigrants amount to a not-so-subtle hint to Washington.

"Through this process, I think the feds will get the message," Robles said. "These are desperate times. You can't blame states for taking action."

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