Utah's embrace: no documents, no problem
Salt Lake City - At a bustling Latino market on the city's west side, dusty workmen munch plates of carnitas at a lunch counter, while shoppers scan the aisles for goodies such as stewed chipotles or fresh tomatillos.
Behind the cash register, a Peruvian immigrant named Karin professes to love Utah. And even better, this state seems to love her back.
"My aunt told me you can get a (driver's) license, you can go to university. That was a big reason I came," said Karin, 25, who said she plans to take advantage of a law that allows illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition by studying nursing.
Shuffling through a pile of invoices nearby, Teresa Campos, the store manager, nods knowingly.
"I've lived in California. I've lived in Las Vegas. No place is like this," Campos said. Here, "they don't think just because we don't have papers we aren't human beings."
Amid the country's caustic immigration debate, this may be the closest thing these days to an immigrant paradise.
Utah is the most Republican state in the country. But the state's more than 95,000 undocumented immigrants can legally drive with a "driving privilege card" created last year. They can go to any public university or community college and pay in-state tuition.
Many of the state's otherwise conservative lawmakers are major players nationally in pushing for a more open immigration policy. In 2003, no less a conservative stalwart than Sen. Orrin Hatch sponsored the Dream Act, a bill that would have removed federal penalties for states that want to give illegal immigrants a college tuition break.
"Politically and philosophically, I'm a conservative," said Marco Diaz, chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly. "We can be conservative and still be compassionate.
"It's not just a slogan in Utah," he said.
Efforts rooted in faith
But it is a paradox.
Political observers seeking to explain the state's unusual embrace of immigrants point to a variety of factors, many involving the state's dominant faith.
Over the past several decades, the Mormon Church has sent thousands of Utahns to Latin America on two-year missions to preach and proselytize, creating strong links between the region and people who went on to become some of the state's top policymakers.
Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon went on a mission in Guatemala in the 1970s. The state's attorney general - who also has adopted two Mexican- American children - spent two years in Peru.
But one of the strongest influences, experts say, is embedded in the central doctrine of the Mormon faith, a force with enormous influence over both politics and society here.
The Book of Mormon teaches that a lost tribe of Israelites known as the Lamanites landed on the American continent in 600 B.C. and they are the forefathers of the native peoples of Mexico and Central and South America.
Many Mormons see the tens of thousands of Latin American immigrants who have arrived in the seat of the church as guided by the hand of God in order to be converted, critical players in an unfolding religious tale of biblical proportions.
"Mormons have the Book of Mormon, and the Latin American, aboriginal ancestry is relevant to their views. Those notions, if sometimes misunderstood, are at least widely held," said Cannon, a four-term congressman and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The Mormon Church has taken a position that is pretty clear. They are a proselytizing church, and they view the people coming to Utah as a great group of people to convert," Cannon said.
That faith has helped fire actions on the issue
from Salt Lake to Washington.
The Utah lawmaker was the architect in 2003 of AgJobs, an unsuccessful bill in Congress that would have legalized 500,000 farm workers nationwide.
And just as Tancredo has been vilified by pro-immigrant groups across the country, national anti-immigrant groups have targeted Cannon, helping to fund a Republican primary opponent two years ago. The popular Utah lawmaker won by a 16- point margin.
"It's been a little bit up and down in Utah, but we've moved in the right direction, and that is towards tolerance," Cannon said.
The result is an atmosphere in which illegal immigrants say they both have access to key services and feel welcome. The driver's cards allow them to get auto insurance and are widely accepted by local banks for loans and mortgages.
Zions Bank, one of the state's largest, has begun opening immigrant-oriented branches called Su Banco. And two years ago, the Mormon Church began a Hispanic Initiative that provides Spanish-speakers with English lessons and classes on household budgeting.
"Can you imagine the difference it makes for (immigrant workers) to have the mobility to pick their children up from school, to go to work in the morning and come back in the evening?" said Salvador Jimenez, the Mexican Consul in Salt Lake City.
Not that there isn't some trouble brewing.
Recently opponents have fought back in Utah, wielding their own portion of church theology. They note that the Book of Mormon emphasizes obeying the law and that prospective converts must swear that they deal honestly with other people before they can enter a Mormon temple. Both are inconsistent with crossing the border illegally, critics say.
"Whether there is love of our fellow man is beside the point. The point is they are breaking thelaw," said state Rep. Glenn Donnelson, who launched an unsuccessful effort during this year's legislative session to rescind both in-state tuition and the driver's privilege cards.
But ask state Rep. David Ure about those critics and the conservative Republican from Kamas, a small town east of Salt Lake, says they are missing a bigger point.
A rancher who rises at 4 a.m. every morning to feed cattle, Ure first became involved in the immigration issue when he was approached by a Park City High School teacher about a star student who was also an illegal immigrant.
The student, Silvia Salguero, had entered the country illegally with her parents when she was in the seventh grade. Eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Utah, Salguero was told she couldn't enroll and ended up working in Park City as a housekeeper instead.
"I just lost it," said Gerry Esplin, the teacher who first talked to Ure. "There is so much opportunity and so much wealth here, and we weren't helping the people who are serving everyone.."
Esplin helped organize other undocumented students, taking them to the state legislature to testify.
After the successful vote on an in-state tuition bill sponsored by Ure, students who had watched the debate from the gallery erupted into tears, Ure said.
"It would have touched anyone," he said.
Critics who launched the frontal assault on several of the state's pro-immigrant laws in this year's legislature say the laws have made the state a magnet for illegal immigrants.
Ken Jameson, a University of Utah researcher, said that so far there is little evidence that that's the case. The state has significantly fewer illegal immigrants than some of its neighbors, including Colorado, he said.
"What's happening is that the states where there are jobs being created is where people go," Jameson said.
"The question is whether if you have a punitive stance, will that discourage them? I don't know, but the evidence suggests that's not the reason people come or don't come," he said.
Meanwhile, advocates for a more open approach say there is at least tentative evidence that the policy has paid off with better schools, more secure neighborhoods and safer roads.
A legislative audit performed this year showed that 75 percent of the 25,000 people holding driver's privilege cards in Utah had insurance, a rate only 6 percent below the average for all drivers.
And while numbers in the in-state tuition program are small - there were only 117 students in 2003-04 - educators say anecdotal evidence suggests it is keeping a higher number of immigrant students in school long enough to get a high school diploma, helping reduce the state's gaping Hispanic dropout rate.
To educators such as Keri Graybill, that ought to be all that matters. Graybill teaches at Salt Lake's Granite High School and drums into the heads of her students their opportunities to go to college despite their status as undocumented immigrants.
She said the law has made a difference: Parents have approached her looking for more information about the program. Bright students who would have otherwise ended up working in restaurants are now dreaming of becoming engineers or nurses.
"For these kids, it's a motivator. They'll say, 'I'm staying in school because of this,"' said Graybill, who teaches Spanish and English as a second language.
"I have friends who see it the opposite way. For them, 'It's my (tax) money, and I don't want to spend it on that,"' she said.
"I get their point," she said. But "for me, education is the future."
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