Mero: Don’t Let Partisanship Derail Utah Solution for Undocumented Immigration

The following is an op-ed produced by Sutherland Institute President Paul T. Mero and submitted to various newspapers in Utah. This is the piece, unedited, in its entirety.

Please forgive me a few personal ruminations. For nearly three years, through my employer, Sutherland Institute, I have been working on immigration policy as it pertains to Utah. This issue is perhaps the single most complex and vexing one I’ve ever dealt with in my 25 years of public policy. And it also is the most gratifying for a big-idea guy.

Since May 2010, just one month after Arizona passed its controversial SB 1070, I have worked with Democratic State Senator Luz Robles to craft a Utah solution addressing undocumented immigrants in Utah and how to mitigate negative impacts while encouraging people of good will to rise to the surface of society. Most everyone in my policy world understands that federal legal immigration reforms, by definition, can solve any problem with illegal immigration. But Sutherland is a state-based think tank and, as such, we focus on Utah. So our perspective and policy ideas naturally center on how Utah should respond to this issue in its own backyard until the federal government gets it act together.

Sutherland has hosted dozens of meetings in our Salt Lake City office to facilitate dialogues about immigration-related issues among very diverse groups of Utahns. For nine long, demanding, tiring months, my colleagues and I have honed down issue after issue, aspect after aspect, word after word, reality after reality, to craft what I think is a very sound approach to constructively and effectively addressing undocumented immigrants in Utah.

As a dedicated conservative working for a conservative public policy group, I have pushed these meeting and dialogues to get the context of this issue as correct as the specifics. In other words, if I may use the metaphor of home construction, the plumbing and electrical schemes of a house are essential, but they are secondary to its foundation and structure. A poorly constructed house, even with a superb plumbing system, isn’t much of a home.

I can’t justify, let alone recommend, any policies that serve to hunt down and round up people of good will. Neither can I recommend policies that only serve to starve them out and keep people from providing for their families in the name of discouraging their presence in our state. A key part of the context for this issue is to see undocumented immigrants as we see ourselves. When we finally see it that way, the question “What don’t you understand about the word illegal?” is insufficient to address the very human aspects of undocumented immigration.

I have tried my best to understand my most vocal opponents. They are justifiably concerned about negative impacts, such as identity theft, that seem to be part and parcel of undocumented immigration. As for the cries that the undocumented are destroying American culture, committing disproportionate amounts of crime, and bleeding our welfare services dry, I’ve found such claims to be exaggerated and without merit. But even considering the serious matter of identity theft, I have been shocked at my opponents’ myopic fixation on punishing wrongdoers without even giving any consideration to fixing its root problems and restoring the personal and financial integrity of the victims.

Authentic conservatism, if it offers any constructive answers in this case, focuses on the powers of community and free markets to solve social problems before the heavy hand of government gets involved. This leads me to encourage policies that tend to lift undocumented immigrants to the surface of society where they, like the rest of us, can be productive and accountable.

Most harmful to Utah’s public safety would be “enforcement-only” approaches that only serve to drive people underground and away from accountability.

With this context in mind, Senator Robles and I, along with many fine colleagues throughout Utah, developed the idea of an “accountability card” for undocumented immigrants living in Utah. It stands as SB 60 and is co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by Republican Jeremy Peterson. SB 60 meets all the basic criteria to establish a workable solution.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a truly Utah solution: partisan, special-interest politics. This factor might single-handedly derail everything and anything good we can do in Utah to ensure our public safety, protect freedom, and promote economic prosperity.

In one corner are “immigration activists” who insist that immigration-related matters are concerns for the federal government only. They insist on this point for a variety of reasons, mostly because they don’t trust our state Legislature to preserve key civil rights for undocumented immigrants. And so they incessantly repeat their federal government mantra. They are the first to say that any Utah solution will be “unconstitutional” but ignore the reality that Utah is a sovereign state permitted to address the adverse impacts of any federal ineptitude affecting our public safety, freedom and economy.

In another corner are Utah businesses that rely on immigrants, documented or undocumented, to work for them. This is a reality of economic life in Utah and cannot be overlooked. But these business interests have a tendency to objectify undocumented immigrants as simply “workers,” forgetting the very human struggles and complexities they have with family, security and prosperity issues – just like every other human being. And because they tend to objectify immigrants as “workers,” they propose very narrow ideas, like “guest worker” programs, that only lead to further objectification and unnecessary tensions in Utah’s undocumented immigrant community.

In still another corner are a few state legislators who, despite a very good understanding of the problem and of a potential Utah solution – a solution that could be a model for the rest of the nation – feel compelled to focus on the shrill voices of the vocal and active constituents who show up at caucus meetings during election season. Legislators who fit this description want to do the right thing but struggle because re-election is their priority.

Finally, in yet another corner, are other state legislators who oddly cannot give credit where credit is due because the credit would go to a Democrat. It is sad that someone with a “D” by her name, Senator Robles, is persona non grata simply because she’s not in the majority party. As I mentioned, the proposal we’ve worked on together for nine months is a truly effective and comprehensive Utah solution and model for the nation. But because she evidently has four strikes against her – she is a woman, a Hispanic, a Democrat, and a self-styled liberal – her ideas are immediately ruled out. I have never understood this sort of political shunning. An idea is good or bad on its own merits.

In response to these partisan political complications, many Utah community leaders and courageous state legislators have intervened. The widely popular Utah Compact, the brainchild of the Downtown Alliance, has helped to unify Utahns (and public opinion) around constructive, comprehensive solutions. The Utah Compact addresses the all-important aspect of context. It is a timely reminder that this issue is complex and affects everyone, and that simple-minded or punitive ideas won’t get us where Utah needs to be.

In addition, thoughtful state legislators are working aggressively behind the scenes. House Speaker Becky Lockhart is doing her best to allow all ideas to surface among her House colleagues. I, along with several other people, have asked State Senator Curt Bramble to lead an effort to cobble together a unified approach. Senator Bramble has some experience with these issues as the sponsor of the very successful “driving privilege card” that has resulted in tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Utah using the cards, thereby enhancing public safety. Interestingly, Senator Bramble worked closely with then-civilian Luz Robles to get that bill passed.

In the same breath, much credit in driving a broad-based Utah solution goes to Governor Gary Herbert and Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell. The buck stops with them, ultimately, and they have been helpful and courageous in insisting on and guiding a constructive dialogue.

With that said, there remains a void in leadership. Immigration is such a hot political issue among the Republican rank and file who attend caucus meetings and conventions that the behind-the-scenes work isn’t sufficient anymore to create an exemplary Utah solution. While the shrill activist voices don’t have enough clout to pass anything, it seems they do have enough clout to stop reasonable ideas.

After all of this time and effort – after all of the meetings, all of the debates, all of the behind-the-scenes wrangling, and all of the alternative proposals – here is what I think will work best: (1) Use the Robles/Peterson bill, SB 60, as the base statute and add other constructive ideas to its solid foundation; (2) let Representative Stephen Sandstrom’s “enforcement-only” bill, HB 70, stand or fall on its own merits; (3) separately craft legislation that addresses the real victims of identity theft (a process made easier by the passage of SB 60); and (4) leave any “guest worker” program for future consideration once we’ve laid a solid foundation in dealing with undocumented immigrants who are already here and those who might yet come.

(Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.)