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The 'Utah Way' toward immigration reform

Advocates of the compact included the police, some key elected officials and, critically, the Mormon church, whose members include perhaps 90 percent of Utah's state lawmakers. They understood that the fast-growing Hispanic community, which counts for 13 percent of Utah's population and may include more than 100,000 undocumented workers, is vital to the state's tourism, agriculture and construction industries.

The advocates' genius was to reframe the cause of immigration reform, including the guest-worker program, as fundamentally a conservative project. In the face of sound bites from reform opponents such as "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" Utah conservatives shot back with: What part of destroying the economy don't you understand? And by the way, what part of breaking up families don't you understand?

The question is whether Utah will inspire similar movements in other states or whether it will remain the exception. On that, the evidence is mixed.

Discouragingly, neither Utah's two U.S. senators nor its three representatives have backed the Utah Compact or the just-passed state legislation. Most mainstream Republicans remain stuck on enforcement, which is code for deportation. And the Mormon church, which did much to sway public opinion and to inoculate the guest-worker legislation from conservative attack, has limited influence outside the state.

Encouragingly, though, several conservative states have rejected Arizona-style bills this year. Reform advocates are at work on versions of the Utah Compact in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

The lesson from the "Utah Way" is that pragmatists in search of solutions can initiate a reform movement outside the legislature and build a case and a coalition that appeal to conservatives. By offering ideas that may provide a fix in the absence of federal action, they may trump the tired slogans of opponents of reform.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.


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