Politics
9:46 am
Mon October 1, 2012

Utah Priorities Project: Immigration

The non-partisan Utah Foundation surveys voters every election cycle to find out what issues concern them most.  It's called the Utah Priorities Project, and KUER is presenting a series of programs examining these issues with the help of Foundation researchers.

Talk to the candidates and they'll have a list of issues that they say their constituents respond to.  But Utah Foundation President Steve Kroes says the Utah Priorities Project lets voters set their own agenda.

"We start off by surveying Utahns to find 0ut what their concerns are on policy issues," Kroes tells KUER.  "And we allow Utahns to participate with an open-ended survey where they can nominate any issue possible for our initial survey.  And then we go out in a more structured survey, taking all those things that were nominated in the open-ended survey and asking people their level of concern about the issues and we come up with a list of top ten issues for the state."

This year, immigration is 10th on the list, and Utah Foundation research director Morgan Lyon Cotti says immigration has contributed to dramatic changes in Utah's demographics.

"In 1990," she tells KUER,"about 3-1/2% of the state's population was foreign-born and now it's 8%.  That's made the state a lot more diverse as well.  Utah's now almost 20-percent minority, and of course, the biggest part of that is the Hispanic population."

Mexico and Canada account for a large majority of immigrants now living in Utah, while significant numbers have come from Vietnam and China as well as Pacific islands nations such as Tonga and Samoa.

Voters concern has centered mainly on undocumented immigrants coming to the state.  Utah's legislature has passed a bill that allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for a serious crime.  Utah's law, along with stricter statutes from Arizona and Alabama, is being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has had the job of defending the Utah law in federal court, and he expects a ruling on it before he leaves office in January.  But he says the angry rhetoric that has fueled the debate over state immigration laws appears to be fading in this election.

Shurtleff says some of that moderation on the issue is a result of the Utah Compact, a statement of principles from religious, business and political leaders.  He says it's been particularly influential among members of his Republican party.

"Mainstream Republicans," Shurtleff tells KUER, "they want to believe that something needs to be done, but they also believe it needs to be done in a moderate, reasonable, pragmatic and fair way, and Utah is an example of that.  They're talking about the Utah Compact all across this country.  Other states are passing -- Indiana Compact, Iowa Compact, Florida's looking at it, Texas is working hard on it."

At his monthly news conference on KUED last week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert acknowledged the Republican party may pay a political price for its harsh rhetoric on immigration over the past several years.

"Unfortunately, the immigration issue, which nobody seems to want to tackle, has been kind of kicking the can down the road, has put us in a position where we are saying, 'law enforcement and make sure we enforce the rule of law,' which has been off-putting to some of the Latino community.  I think Republicans sometimes lose the 'I care' debate," Herbert said.

While the issue of immigration has motivated voters in Utah and many other states, there's also general agreement among both Republicans and Democrats that the federal government hasn't lived up to its responsibility to enforce the law and to create an environment that encourages compliance.

The Utah Priorities Project issues brief on immigration