Was Utah’s Much-Heralded Immigration Law All It Promised?

Three years after the law’s passage, undocumented immigrants still fear deportation.

Supporters of immigration reform rally at the Utah State Capitol on March 5, 2010.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
April 16, 2014, 6:08 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Salt Lake City — the New West.

SALT LAKE CITY — Roughly three years ago, the state of Utah passed an im­mig­ra­tion law that was her­al­ded at the time as a hu­mane, smart al­tern­at­ive to Ari­zona’s tough new anti-im­mig­ra­tion stance that al­lowed po­lice to stop and check the doc­u­ments of any­one sus­pec­ted of liv­ing in the U.S. il­leg­ally.

The Utah le­gis­la­tion seemed like a ma­jor tri­umph in con­trast, be­cause it sought to give un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants the chance to ap­ply for two-year work per­mits. They only had to prove that they had already lived and worked in the state and passed a crim­in­al back­ground check; they then had to pay a fine of up to $2,500. The state Le­gis­lature passed the bill in March 2011, after re­ceiv­ing broad sup­port from an un­likely polit­ic­al al­li­ance that in­cluded con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans, a statewide busi­ness group, Utah’s hand­ful of Demo­crats, and the power­ful Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints.

Na­tion­ally, the bill offered a solu­tion for oth­er states to fol­low and one po­ten­tial av­en­ue for the coun­try’s more than 11 mil­lion il­leg­al im­mig­rants. It also al­lowed people to con­tin­ue to work and to re­main with their fam­il­ies (two ma­jor selling points in a con­ser­vat­ive state with a low rate of un­em­ploy­ment). And it did so without wad­ing in­to the thorn­i­er is­sues of wheth­er un­doc­u­mented work­ers could re­main here in a more per­man­ent fash­ion. “What con­ser­vat­ive is against someone try­ing to make a bet­ter life?” says state Sen. Curtis Bramble, one of the key Re­pub­lic­ans be­hind the le­gis­la­tion. “As an Amer­ic­an, it’s hard to ar­gue that is not a worthy goal.”

Yet three years after the law’s pas­sage, loc­al politi­cians, im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates, policy wonks, and un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants say that little has changed on the ground for the lives of the un­doc­u­mented in Utah. The 2011 state law still has not been en­acted; to do so would re­quire a waiver from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in Utah, like every­where in the U.S., still fear the idea of be­ing ex­posed and pos­sibly de­por­ted. “Utah was meant to be at the fore­front of this, but un­til the feds change any­thing, these laws just give people false prom­ises,” says Heidi A. Chamorro, a loc­al law stu­dent who works closely with the un­doc­u­mented com­munity, par­tic­u­larly its youth. Or, as Jean Hill, the gov­ern­ment li­ais­on for the Cath­ol­ic Dio­cese of Salt Lake City and an im­mig­ra­tion-law ex­pert, says more bleakly: “I don’t think we ac­com­plished any­thing. It was just a big mes­sage bill.”

One by-product of the le­gis­la­tion has been an up­tick in scams dir­ec­ted at the un­doc­u­mented com­munity in Utah, say im­mig­ra­tion law­yers. “Even at the time, com­munity lead­ers were con­cerned that the law would con­fuse people and lead to lots of mis­in­form­a­tion,” Hill says. In hind­sight, such scams seem in­ev­it­able, the ease of con­vin­cing already vul­ner­able people to pay money to ob­tain a use­less work­er’s per­mit (at least un­til the law is en­acted) too tempt­ing.

The Utah At­tor­ney Gen­er­al’s Of­fice does not keep of­fi­cial stat­ist­ics on the num­ber of cases it has pro­sec­uted re­lated to im­mig­ra­tion fraud. But The Salt Lake Tribune has de­tailed a num­ber of the most high-pro­file ar­rests. Among them, a man named Jose Gonza­lez posed as an im­mig­ra­tion of­ficer in Utah and offered to help roughly 20 il­leg­al im­mig­rants ob­tain a “visa” in ex­change for $7,000 to $10,000 apiece. Gonza­lez, ac­cord­ing to The Tribune, even wore a photo ID and lan­yard of an im­mig­ra­tion of­ficer when he met with the vic­tims. Oth­er scam­mers, Hill says, will pose as at­tor­neys and of­fer to ad­vise cli­ents on im­mig­ra­tion laws for a fee.

Nor has the 2011 Utah law brought any peace of mind to the un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants them­selves. Fifty-one-year-old Laura, who asked that her last name be with­held giv­en her il­leg­al status, came to Utah about 14 years ago from Mex­ico. She ar­rived on a tour­ist visa that she over­stayed to re­main with her hus­band, a com­puter tech­ni­cian who works in the Salt Lake City area. Now, the couple has three daugh­ters, ages 12 through 16. Even after all of these years in the state as a work­er, moth­er, and mem­ber of the LDS Church, Laura still stresses about her im­mig­ra­tion status. The days fol­low­ing the 2011 law proved no dif­fer­ent and won’t be, she says, un­til the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment tackles im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “Most people I know don’t think I’m il­leg­al,” she says. “Every single day I worry about it. I worry that I will get out of work and not get to come back home to see my fam­ily.”

Per­haps the lone pos­it­ive out­come of the 2011 le­gis­la­tion is that it suc­ceeded in dampen­ing the state’s anti-im­mig­ra­tion fer­vor. Bramble him­self, formerly a pro­ponent of tough im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion, re­mem­bers con­ten­tious State­house battles dat­ing back to 1999 over wheth­er il­leg­al im­mig­rants in Utah could ob­tain driver’s li­censes or per­mits, or be­ne­fit from in-state tu­ition. Since the 2011 law passed (even without the fed­er­al waiver), that con­ver­sa­tion has died down. “We have not dealt with anti-im­mig­ra­tion bills since then,” says Demo­crat­ic state Sen. Luz Robles. “We sent a mes­sage to the feds and now we’ve moved on.”

The 2011 law also re­framed the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate on a loc­al level for many of the state’s con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers and rep­res­en­ted a ma­jor shift in their think­ing. It caused law­makers like Bramble to think through the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate in terms of the ef­fect on the loc­al, ro­bust Salt Lake City eco­nomy, or in terms of the im­port­ance of main­tain­ing people’s fam­ily struc­ture across com­munit­ies, in­clud­ing the un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

“True con­ser­vat­ism cares about the hu­man be­ing, and, frankly, our whole ob­ject­ive was to raise un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to the sur­face of so­ci­ety, so they can be ac­count­able. So they can be in­volved in their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion,” says Paul Mero, the pres­id­ent of Suth­er­land In­sti­tute, a con­ser­vat­ive Utah pub­lic-policy think tank that sup­por­ted the 2011 law. “Our bill was not about bor­der se­cur­ity. That was Con­gress’s deal. What we craf­ted in Utah was about the folks who ac­tu­ally live here.” 

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