Arturo Morales came to Utah in 1992 on a student visa, intending to become a lawyer and return to Mexico.
A beautiful woman changed all that.
After he got married, he realized he needed to stay in the United States and work full time. So he withdrew from school and asked immigration officials to change his status from a student visa to a work visa. A week before the deadline, he got a work permit, and then a green card. Citizenship came three years later. He points to himself and others like him as examples of how immigration is legally achievable.
“I hear over and over that the system is broken, but the system is not broken,” Morales said. “There is a system, and there is a system for a reason, for a purpose. People have broken that system, and once broken, they want the U.S. to fix it for them.”
The U.S. system isn’t changing, but how Utah works within — and sometimes outside — that system is up for debate. State legislators, who convene today for the 59th session in Salt Lake City, cannot control who enters the country. But many have proposed ways to address illegal immigrants in Utah.
The debate raises questions of federal authority, constitutional issues, what laws are defensible in court and which are certain losers, how proposed laws could affect citizens, and whether the state should reject people like Ismael Galvez.
Galvez was an upset 12-year-old soon after he left his home in Mexico to visit California. His family crossed the border with a tourist visa, but the visa expired and they remained in the country. Galvez soon realized they wouldn’t be going home.
Family members got federal work permits through President Ronald Reagan’s comprehensive immigration reform and picked cotton in northern California. As a teenager, he had a work permit with a valid Social Security number. Even when he found himself illegal again after his LDS mission, he found work. On job and college applications he would say he was a citizen.
“What other choice did I have, become a bum and not work?” he said. “I found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to lie, really.”
Galvez is now married with three children. The first time he heard the national anthem after he became a citizen, he was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I can honestly say I’d give my life for this country,” he said. “I cannot say the same for Mexico.”
The Utah Legislature will weigh four overall approaches to address illegal immigration in Utah:
• Do nothing. The state remains in financial crisis, health system reform is ramping up and the Legislature most likely will be redrawing boundaries and creating a fourth congressional district soon.
• Work within system. Acknowledge that immigration is a federal issue and focus resources on appealing to Utah’s Washington delegation. Legislators could also work with other states, perhaps those having international borders, to lean on Congress to make something happen.
• Make things tough. Pass laws that are not particularly effective in going after undesirable illegal immigrants (read: criminals), but that make those living in the state uncomfortable and afraid so they leave on their own. This would send a message to Uncle Sam that “if you don’t do it, we will” and invite the wrath of the federal government in the form of expensive lawsuits over state laws that flout federal supremacy.
• Ease immigrant and societal stress. Pass laws that make life better for the illegal immigrants here, thereby increasing the view of Utah as a “sanctuary state” and angering conservative voters. Make dealing with illegal immigrants easier and more efficient for a society that, like it or not, includes illegal immigrants.
The argument over supremacy
Plenty of people are clamoring for a combination of the first and second options. The arguments are fairly simple: The supremacy clause of the Constitution gives the federal government the power to forge relationships with other countries. States cannot. Many of the bills proposed thus far in Utah would be difficult and expensive to enforce. At worst, they may be as illegal as the immigrants they target.
Utah, with no international border and only about 1 percent of the U.S. population and less than 2 percent of the illegal immigrant population, doesn’t have a lot of political clout and is hardly the place to create a state-centric solution. A state cannot deport a person. A state cannot change a person’s immigration status. A state cannot detain someone indefinitely once that person has been determined to be illegal.
And yet the political forces are lining up. Utah could do something that would start a national snowball.
Salt Lake immigration attorney Mark Alvarez argues that several of the bills put forth in the Legislature are unconstitutional. For example, the bills that would provide work permits in Utah would need a way around the required federal waiver. Federal law prohibits employers from hiring anyone who is not legally able to work. Rep. Stephen Sandstrom’s enforcement-only bill would mandate additional work for U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents, which a state cannot do.
BYU law professor Carolina Núñez said if that law passed the state would fight for it, as Arizona is doing with its law; judges interpret laws differently, so it is possible that Sandstrom’s bill and others could stand up.
Sandstrom thinks it will. He has U.S. District Court cases in which aspects of this bill are upheld in other states and has talked to constitutional scholars who believe it is legal. Núñez isn’t so sure.
“I know that they tried to make it more likely to pass constitutional muster than others that have been questioned. I don’t know if it’s enough,” she said. “My gut tells me that there might be some constitutional problems.”
Many legislators, however, think doing nothing is not an option. Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, believes Congress should be addressing immigration. But since that body refuses to do so, he’s running a bill that encourages Utah’s congressional delegation to run or encourage a bill that gives states authority to address the problem. With that authority, he said, most of the state bills with constitutionality up for debate pass muster. Without that authority, all the fanfare on immigration from the Utah Legislature only fools the voters into thinking the state can make a difference.
Others believe that calling immigration a federal issue cripples the state, or that the federal government has ceded its authority through a lack of action.
“The federal government has been a dismal, pathetic, abject failure in their approach to immigration,” state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said. “If the feds aren’t going to do it, states are going to step up and do it.”
The problem with state action, Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, said, is that different groups don’t agree on what “fixing the problem” means any more than they agree on how to fix it. So, while he’s expecting a fair amount of activity on the immigration front, he’s not holding his breath for much productivity.
“We’ll pass something that deals with immigration,” he said. “Largely, it won’t do anything about immigration, but it will add a greater burden to our citizens to prove that they are citizens, and we’ll feel good because we did something.”
Removing the welcome mat
The state can’t deport illegal immigrants, but it can pass enough laws that create an unfriendly environment so they’ll leave on their own.
The Arizona law has had that effect. A June article in USA Today cited a largely Hispanic school district losing 70 students within one month of the law’s passage. The district superintendent said that parents were telling him that the law is why they were moving to a more welcoming state.
Many Utah legislators don’t want Utah to be welcoming, either to those fleeing Arizona or to those already here.
“I want the message, loud and clear, to be that Utah does not tolerate illegal activity,” Sandstrom said, adding that in surveys taken of those fleeing Arizona, Utah was the most popular destination. “If we do nothing, then Utah’s going to be even a bigger magnet.”
Anecdotally, the Arizona bill is working here. Dodd Greer, the program manager for Community Health Connect, a health clinic for people without insurance that serves a number of illegal immigrants, said that after the brouhaha over Arizona’s bill and Sandstrom’s announcement of a similar one, the number of clients at the clinic dropped. They weren’t leaving the state, but they also weren’t leaving their homes.
“There was a real fear in the street that really made a difference in people coming here for help,” he said.
The passage of other bills this session could compound that effect.
In 2005, the Legislature passed a bill that allowed illegal immigrants to get so-called driving privilege cards — something of a misnomer, since the card was intended to put illegal immigrants into a database that would allow tracking of auto insurance. The cards require a mailing address, proof of insurance and proof of driving school completion.
Bramble, who sponsored the legislation, said these are people who are on the road anyway; so the driving privilege card protects other drivers.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, isn’t buying that. He’s running a bill to counteract the six-year-old legislation.
“It’s time to take the next step and stop the practice of giving driving privilege cards, which undercut rational immigration policy,” he said.
Utah is one of 10 states that offers in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from Utah high schools; it is also one of six states with proposed legislation prohibiting this policy. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is the sponsor of that legislation.
“We’re talking about enforcement, we’re talking about all these things that we’re going to do to crack down on illegal immigration, but we still offer taxpayer-subsidized benefits for illegal immigrants to come here,” he said. “That’s just not right.”
Christopher Campbell, a tall white man from Herriman man who was improperly arrested because a short Hispanic man with a lengthy criminal record was using his Social Security number, is inclined to agree with such bills. Why, he wants to know, should Utah make illegal immigrants’ lives easier?
“If you don’t have citizenship, you don’t get a license,” Campbell said. “If you don’t have citizenship, you don’t have college access. If you don’t have citizenship, you don’t get scholarships to schools.”
That makes Maria Espinoza’s 12- and 10-year-old children as hopeless about their futures as she is. They were 5 and 3 years old when they crossed the border and have few or no memories of Mexico. They are as American as their two younger brothers who were born here, except for their citizenship status.
When Ismael Galvez returned to Mexico a decade ago, the first time since he’d left 17 years prior, he realized he didn’t belong there anymore. He was an American. He was one of hundreds of thousands of children who were brought to this country, raised here and belong here, he said. Those child immigrants who only know the United States as home should not be punished, he said.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has said the state can’t afford to enforce bills like Sandstrom’s. Sandstrom said law enforcement would not be spending extra money but only checking those who have already been detained.
The idea of removing incentives for illegal immigration is gaining traction throughout the United States, Núñez, the law professor, said. The problem, she said, is that hard-charging legislation geared toward illegal immigrants often affects others as well.
“There are other ways to stop undocumented immigration and maybe other ways that’ll be more palatable,” she said.
Making life easier for everyone — whether you want to or not
Other than being in the country illegally, Ismael Galvez did not break any laws. He’s gotten two traffic tickets in the 20-plus years he’s lived in the United States. He has been a good neighbor. This kind of immigrant should be encouraged, he said. Immigrants who break the law should be kicked out, and quickly.
“I think there’s a lot of people that are doing that and a lot who aren’t, and government’s biggest problem is how to sort them out,” he said.
The reality is that illegal immigrants are in the state and they’re working. State officials can keep track of who is here and mitigate some of the effects of the illegal population. Critics fear this will make Utah a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants, but proponents argue that they are here anyway and need to be dealt with as part of society.
This could mean providing work permits for those who register with the state, which would allow illegals to work in the state, as Robles has suggested.
“We know they’re here,” Robles said. “We can’t do anything to remove them from the state or the country.”
Robles, along with Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, are running bills that would create state worker permit programs. They all realize that these are state interventions in what is generally considered to be federal jurisdiction, but at least it’s something. Such bills would require some kind of OK from the federal government as well, and that’s highly unlikely.
Again, the federal government could sue on grounds of supremacy, but there may be little it could do against the state if Utah refused to acknowledge a court ruling. You can’t throw a state in jail.
“It wouldn’t be the first time states have become laboratories,” Robles said. “Nothing has been tested on comprehensive approaches. This will be one of them.”
Sandstrom called these bills a type of amnesty and guessed they have little chance of passing.
This type of solution, however, has a surprising supporter. Lynette Weed’s 9-year-old daughter Grace was denied coverage from the Children’s Health Insurance Program when she was only 2 years old because as many as 10 people were making money with her Social Security number. Her daughter will face identity theft challenges for many years to come, Weed knows. But her reaction is not to drive illegals out.
“Honestly, aren’t we all immigrants?” Weed said. “I’d like to see if there’s some way we can say ‘You’re here, you’re working, let’s make it legal and official.’ ”