Mero Moment: The Utah Solution

This week I want to talk about the Utah Solution. Today, March 15, 2011, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a historic document. The state Legislature passed a state-based comprehensive immigration reform bill by pretty significant margins, and Governor Herbert made it law.

Never before in modern history has a state assumed what has otherwise been a federal prerogative to address undocumented immigrants in a comprehensive manner. Utah is the first.

While the bill, a thoroughly hashed version of HB 116, isn’t perfect, it’s a step in the right direction. Whether anyone likes it or not, because the federal government has failed in its responsibilities over effective legal immigration policy, Utah – and many other states – are saddled with illegal immigration.

The big policy question for us isn’t how Utahns stop illegal immigration. The big policy question for us is how we now address approximately 110,000 undocumented immigrants living in Utah. Our options have been divided between two approaches. We could either work to push out every undocumented immigrant, or we could work to hold them accountable if they’re going to be here among us.

For all of the opinions that have focused on rounding up or starving out these immigrants – the antis politely call this effort “attrition” – few seem to have visualized how that could be accomplished without major threats to Utah’s freedom and families, in general. We know what those efforts look like. We’ve fought world wars against nations who have attempted to do such things. We have the vivid memories of the Topaz internment camp. And yet, remarkably, some Utahns remain convinced that forced attrition is the way to go.

The bill that Governor Herbert signed today is far from that vision. Rather than treat undocumented immigrants as criminals – by the way, they’re not, unless you consider yourself a criminal for a civil infraction or even a lowly misdemeanor – HB 116 is a realistic approach while ensuring public safety, protecting freedom and promoting economic prosperity. It says to all undocumented immigrants living in Utah, “You’re welcome to continue to stay here until the federal government gets its act together as long as you are otherwise law-abiding, productive contributors to society.”

On a personal note, I’m very pleased with this outcome. I have debated this subject for over three years. I have heard all of the horribles identified by this bill’s opponents. Those arguments have been debunked and refuted time and time again. Even so, these opponents remain convinced that Utah is being overrun by the “brown scourge” and that all of these immigrants are inherently criminals, taking jobs from Utahns, and breaking down our rule of law through their obvious disrespect of our laws. Folks, the truth is otherwise.

HB 116 goes into effect two years from now. That time allows us to continue to refine this idea, work with other states to form a compact of sorts, and allow us to negotiate with the federal government. This issue is the perfect 10th Amendment case for Utah. As a sovereign state, Utahns have the right to protect our public safety and look after our prosperity – and we have a right to do it our way.

When you’re in the middle of a highly divisive issue, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. As Governor Herbert courageously put his pen to paper in signing HB 116, all I could think of was that Utah would be on the right side of history. I’m proud of our example to the world.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.