The 'Utah Way' toward immigration reform

By Lee Hockstader
Friday, March 11, 2011


Utah, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by better than three to one in the state legislature, has passed the nation's most liberal - and most reality-based - policy on illegal immigration. And the Republican governor is expected to sign it.

The legislation includes both a watered-down enforcement provision that police say won't make much difference and a guest-worker program that would make all the difference in the world - if it survives constitutional challenge - by granting legal status to undocumented workers and allowing them to live normal lives. In a nutshell, it's a one-state version of the overarching immigration reform package that Congress has repeatedly tried, and failed, to enact.

Conservative Republicans here - and Republicans don't get much more conservative than the statehouse variety in Salt Lake - say their bill is a gauntlet thrown down to the feds for their inability to deal with illegal immigration and the nation's demand for unskilled labor.

That's one way of looking at it. But the "Utah Way," as some are calling it, is also a fraternal attack on Republicans, in Washington and elsewhere, whose only strategy is to demonize, criminalize and deport 11 million illegal immigrants.

Karl Rove, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich are among the Republican grandees who have distanced themselves from that approach and warned of the peril it poses for the party. In the wake of Arizona's legislation last year, a wave of copycat bills would go a long way toward permanently ridding the GOP of Hispanics, the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority.

But it's in Utah that the Republican deportation caucus has been treated to real abuse. What's interesting is that it's coming from unimpeachable conservatives. If you want to see the most corrosive long-term wedge issue facing the GOP, come to Salt Lake City.

Utah's guest-worker bill doesn't grant citizenship, of course, but in every other way it's exactly what national Republicans have derided as "amnesty." It would grant work permits to undocumented immigrants, and their immediate families, who pay a fine, clear a criminal background check and study English.

The bill's chief sponsor, state Rep. Bill Wright, is a plain-spoken dairy farmer who describes his politics as "extremely" conservative, likes Sarah Palin and believes he may have once voted for a Democrat - possibly 40 years ago for sheriff. He admires the work ethic of the Hispanic farmhands he's employed over the years and doesn't care much for anything the government does, least of all the idea that it might deport millions of immigrant workers and their families.

"That's not gonna happen," Wright told me. "They've got cars, they've got money borrowed, they own property, they are intertwined. Just be real and face facts the way they are."

A milestone in setting the stage for Wright's legislation was the "Utah Compact," a pithy declaration of reform principles drafted last fall by business leaders and conservative elites, who feared Utah would follow in Arizona's footsteps and risk losing tens of millions of dollars in tourism and convention business, as Arizona did. The compact helped swing public opinion in Utah away from the illegal-immigrant bashers who admired Arizona's law.

"They've had their 15 minutes in the media and now the adults are going to start talking about how to handle matters," said Paul Mero, executive director of Utah's most prominent conservative think tank, the Sutherland Institute, who helped draft the compact. "We've been able to break through that political barrier put up by the wing nuts who see every brown person as a criminal."

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