Immigrants Stream Into Utah in Search of Better Life

Yolanda Gomes works long hours at her food cart, "La Favorita," parked down the road from a truck stop near Interstate 215, earning as little as $50 a day. It's a better life, she says, than the one she had in Michoacán, Mexico.

Gomes has lived in the United States for 20 years, though she is not a citizen. Her four children were born in California, but the family moved to Utah, lured by cheaper rents.

"It's more better," she said. But not as good, she's heard, as life further north and east in Colorado or Wyoming.

Utah, which has seen an influx of undocumented workers, has become a stopping point for immigrants who move from California to Nevada and on through to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado in search of work.

"It is a crossing point for the next destination," said Margarita Rodriguez, president of Centro Civico Mexicano, a community center in Salt Lake City. "A middle ground for people going East or West."

Utah's state legislature is currently debating around a dozen bills that would clamp down on perks — such as driver-privilege cards — afforded to illegal immigrants in the state.

In Salt Lake City, where the U.S. flag looms over many buildings, small Mexican flags can be found among housing tracts in West Jordan and West Valley west of the city. In driveways, pickups advertise national pride south of the border, proclaiming in white Gothic fonts the owner's state of origin, like Jalisco in central Mexico.

"This is a very calm state," said Raul Lopez-Vargas, the vice president of Centro Civico Mexicano. "People just come to look for work and have a better life for them and their children."

What they find are jobs that pay between $5 and $7 an hour and long hours. Some work in the fields picking seasonal crops like peaches, apples and cherries. Others work construction or garment-industry jobs.

"Coming here to the United States, they know the chance they take and the risk involved. They know a lot of discrimination will be involved," Rodriguez said. "Just crossing the border — it’s not guaranteed on your first try, second try."

"Coyotes" — human smugglers — can get immigrants to Utah for several thousand dollars, but then there's the risk the smugglers may kidnap and hold a family member hostage for a few thousand more, Rodriguez said. "La micas" — fake green cards — can be bought for a few hundred dollars more.

These fees mean that once many illegal immigrants get here, they can't go home again.

Undocumented residents tend to lay low in an effort to avoid scrutiny, constantly worrying what might happen to their American-born children should they get picked up by immigration.

"It’s always an underlying fear that is there," Rodriguez said.

That disquiet makes it difficult to find undocumented workers willing to share their stories.

"The people are very scared of the situation," Lopez-Vargas said. "So they don’t want to talk."

Many new immigrants have found support in the community, where they can find some of the comforts of home.

At Rita Valencia's candy and candle shop, one can buy a spiritual candle promising help finding a job, or a Mexican product with an American twist. Hanging above Valencia's candy shelves are Hannah Montana and Spider-Man piñatas, designed for a child weaned on American culture.

"Utah, it's just like a flower that's going to start blooming," Valencia said.

Not everyone is just passing through. Though Mexicans, many Catholic, make up the largest percentage of Utah's legal Hispanic population, some immigrants from South and Central America — recent converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are lured to the Beehive State because it is the Mormons' spiritual home. Those immigrants can find spiritual shelter in a Spanish-speaking Mormon ward.

In the shadow of the Wasatch Range, they can build a life better than the one from which they came.

"If they can be close to their church and their school, they’re OK," Rodriguez said. "They’re not rich, but they’re OK."