Red-State Utah Offers an Object Lesson on Immigration

Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:31am

ST. GEORGE, Utah — This state is about as conservative as there is, yet it has some of the most sensible immigration laws in the country. Its record is a challenge to Republicans in Congress — and to the Obama administration, which isn’t letting the state go as far as it would like.

Remember all the 2008 Democratic-primary fuss about whether undocumented (or illegal) immigrants should be able to get driver’s licenses? Utah solved the problem by granting them Driver Privilege Cards, which can’t be used as identification at airports but do entitle holders to be able to buy auto insurance.

Republicans in Congress so far have blocked passage of DREAM legislation to give legal status to people brought to the United States illegally as children. And lots of them gripe that President Barack Obama has taken executive action to have immigration enforcers not chase such people unless they have committed crimes.

But Utah has done what it can for its DREAMers, allowing them to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. It’s one of just 12 states that do so.

Republicans should note that, among those dozen states, four others are bright red politically — Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

Utah also passed a law in 2011 to create its own guest worker program — allowing undocumented residents to obtain permits to get jobs in the state. According to Utah Speaker Becky Lockhart, implementation of the law awaits the Obama Justice Department’s granting a waiver of federal immigration law. Even if the administration is hoping for passage of nationwide immigration changes, it surely ought to allow Utah to give its undocumented citizens this break.

The state’s policies have been heavily influenced by the Utah Compact, a declaration of principles drawn up in 2010 by the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce and blessed by the Mormon church. It declares that “immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah.”

The compact also reads: “We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors.”

It’s too bad 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney didn’t heed his church’s view instead of advocating “self-deportation” of the undocumented and opposing DREAM as a “magnet” for illegal immigration. He might have done better than 27 percent support among Latino voters.

Republicans in Congress could do worse than to follow the lead of one of their most conservative states.