SALT LAKE CITY – The battle over illegal immigration is being waged on a surprising front — Utah, where some lawmakers are scrambling to drop perks that have lured tens of thousands of undocumented workers to the Beehive State.
Since the opening of the 2008 session on Jan. 21, Utah legislators have discussed around a dozen measures that would dramatically curb rights for illegal immigrants in this non-border state, which has become an unlikely battleground in the nation's immigration debate.
"It’s not a good situation," said Utah Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R.-North Ogden. "As other states take away the benefits, then we become a magnet, and I say that the best fence to build is not chain link and barbed wire, but is to take away the benefits — take away the perks of being an illegal immigrant."
The state legislature is considering bills that would eliminate driver-privilege cards and in-state tuition for undocumented workers, give local authorities expanded power to fight illegals, and add safeguards to combat identity theft.
Legislators are under pressure from citizen groups such as the Utah Minuteman Project, whose members have demanded an end to Utah's position as "a sanctuary state where illegal aliens and their children feel welcome to ignore any and all of our laws."
"There’s a vague sense of disquiet, discomfort and unease about the situation by virtually everyone in Utah that’s not a liberal or not a Democrat and doesn’t want these people here," said Eli Cawley, the chairman of the Utah Minuteman Project. "They want the law followed. The politicians have noticed that."
A poll conducted early last month by the Desert Morning News found that 60 percent of Utahns favor a local role in the enforcement of illegal immigration laws, with 85 percent desiring citizenship checks before immigrants can receive public benefits.
The firestorm surrounding the debate has frustrated Utah's Hispanic community, which makes up approximately 11 percent of the state's approximately 2.65 million population.
Margarita Rodriguez, the president of Centro Civico Mexicano, a community center in Salt Lake City, says the state's Hispanic residents are not unlike their neighbors. "They want the same things: for their children to be educated, for them to have enough food on the table and to pay the bills," she said. "Across the board, they want the same things."
Roughly 100,000 people are estimated to be living in Utah illegally. Migrants are attracted to the Beehive State by seasonal and manual labor, lower rents and a community that puts a strong emphasis on family and religion. Church charities also aid needy arrivals.
"Coyotes" — people who smuggle immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico — bring many undocumented workers to the state where a cottage industry peddling "la micas" — fake green cards — can help them get work, Rodriguez said.
The increase comes amid an overall population boom in Utah, which saw a 13.7 percent increase between 2000 and 2006, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Complicating the issue in this deeply religious state — the home of the Mormon church — are spiritual calls for compassion toward those who may be in Utah illegally.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no position regarding immigration legislation but simply expressed the need for compassion when dealing with any of God's children," said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.
Mormon missionaries minister to new Utah arrivals, but "church leaders and missionaries do not necessarily know the legal status of those who might express an interest in joining the Church and do not seek to know," Purdy said.
The Latter-day Saints count around 4.7 million members in Central and South America — with 1.1 million in Mexico alone, he said.
The Catholic Church has been more vocal in the debate; the leader of the Catholic Diocese in Salt Lake called on Sunday for a path to citizenship for those immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally. Bishop John C. Wester said the church itself could be called "Immigrants 'R' Us," as he called on his parishioners to "welcome" the needy stranger, according to a report Monday in the Deseret Morning News.
Charitable arms of both churches — Catholic Community Services of Utah and Welfare Square — offer support to immigrants, Rodriguez said.
The influx of new arrivals has changed the face of the state's capital, Salt Lake City. At the city's oldest Mexican store, Marisa's Fashion and Market, little more than a mile from the Mormons' Temple Square, owner Refugio Perez notes the change to his community, where Spanish-speaking immigrants have populated neighborhoods near downtown and on the city's westside.
Perez, a U.S. citizen who came here from Mexico illegally three decades ago, said the community knows who is here illegally, but most of the illegal immigrants work hard and don't cause trouble.
"They need us, but we need them too because there’s nobody going back to the fields and do the job," he said. "Nobody’s going to do the dirty job that they’re doing."
Arguments like that don't fly with Cawley and his group. They say that by entering the country illegally, immigrants have forfeited their shot at the American dream.
"All that we ask is that you respect our flag, you obey the law and you assimilate into our value and culture, that’s all," Cawley said.
At Rita Valencia's candy and candle shop in a new Latino shopping development on the city's westside, her merchandise includes spiritual candles that offer help finding jobs and legal aid. She said most of her customers are here illegally, and many have been here for years, establishing good credit, buying houses and finding good jobs.
"Here, they can still find a job without legal documents," she said.
While the percentage of undocumented workers is relatively small in relation to Utah's legal Hispanic population, the immigration debate dominates newspapers and airwaves, creating an atmosphere of intolerance toward those here legally, too.
"I hear people say, 'Mexicans are lazy. They come here and they take — they use up our money,' and then in the next sentence, 'We don’t like when you come because you take our jobs,'" Rodriguez said. "So which one is it? Are we lazy, or do we take your jobs? We can’t do both."
Every year it gets worse and worse, she said.
"A growing percentage of people have made up their mind that they are no longer going to give Hispanic-looking people the benefit of the doubt," Cawley said. Doing so, he contends, aids and abets illegal immigration in Utah.
"They don’t deserve to be met with this hostility and this anger and resentment by people like me. They don’t deserve it," Cawley said. "But I’m not going to take that risk anymore."
Representatives in the Utah House have already acted swiftly, pushing six bills through committee as of Thursday, including bills that repeal in-state tuition and driver-privilege cards.
"We need to obey the law," Donnelson said. "The federal government needs to do something about the law, and they are not, and it is left up to the states. And so we become between a rock and a hard spot because of that."