Arizona law stirs new thinking in Utah

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Many expected Utah to be the first state to follow Arizona’s example in enacting a punitive state immigration law. The court decision that holds enforcement of Arizona law in abeyance did not seem to deter the nativists in Utah. Theirs would be crafted to avoid the judicial pit-falls of the neighbor’s law and would even be tougher in some regards. The outline of that bill was announced in Salt Lake City this week (see Arizona Republic).

That is not, however, the only action in conservative Utah. A couple of weeks ago two state worker had released a list of names of undocumented immigrants taken from state documents. Their intent was to get the named deported. But that invasion of privacy so shocked the leader of Utah Minutemen Project – whose members volunteer to watch the border – that he approached a popular Spanish language talk-show host to have a sit-down to talk through the immigration issue.

A meeting of politicians and activists from both sides of the issue did meet. While no firm agreements were made, a general outline of how Utah could do differently than Arizona emerged. The undocumented already in the state would be allowed to stay after paying a fine and their taxes and being vetted for criminal charges. It became obvious that that alone would not stop unauthorized entry. Utah needs their labor. So a temporary work program was suggested (see Washington Post).

Whether a bill will ever come out of these ideas is speculative. These are friendly adversaries. Still they are at the beginnings of the give-and-take that will be necessary to get comprehensive reform. Also questionable is whether Utah can legislate on matters that the Justice Department claims to be federal jurisdiction. Since these ideas won’t impede enforcement and go along with the administration’s ideas, the courts might give such a law a pass.

There is a refreshing realism – at least for the conservatives. Punitive law against migration like Arizona’s is much like King Chanute telling the tide to go back, not to come in. But migration is a global phenomenon – some call it the “third globalization” after trade and cultural globalization. People are on the move for economic reasons – fleeing poverty. Much of that flight is to the cities from the countryside, but much of it always has been across national borders.

In the mid-twentieth century, countries were settled, experienced depression, and began restricting immigration – especially of people not like us. The boom years after World War II led to a loosing of immigration restriction in the United States and other developed countries. And millions moved pursuing a better life.

Too much of the current discussion on immigration reform has been focused on what to do with 12 million undocumented already here: whether we send them back or let them stay. However we resolve that question, the pressure for migration will still remain. The old Mexican saying – “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States” – means that this rich country is inexorably bound to its poorer neighbor. Mexico is not an entirely poor country, but it is one with a very large pool of those living in poverty. There will always be a push factor to drive the poor to seek the crumbs that fall from the rich’s table. (The North American Free Trade Agreement is credited by many for driving Mexican farmers off their lands and to the United States.)

The rich country also attracts the poor. Certainly in prosperous times, they are welcomed to do the dirty jobs – cleaning up around construction sites, handy work around the house, someone to take care of granny, busing tables at restaurants, and especially picking our crops. The longer migrants stay, the more they advance to better jobs and set down roots in the country. Their children are born American or become American in our schools. The transition may not always be perfect – we have the urban gang culture to prove that (also true of their predecessors – the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews). And they live out their lives in the shadows. Yet quite soon – when the economy improves – they will again be quietly welcome to continue caring for our aging pensioners and to pick our crops.

Actually, this is not just an American phenomenon. It’s universal. The developed countries are aging and shrinking in populations as developing countries grow in numbers and poverty. The push-pull factors in global migration will only increase.

Utah is wise in linking the issue of unauthorized migration to economic factors. A fair labor provision for quest workers will have to be an integral part of comprehensive immigration reform. But as long as the large disparities between rich nations and poor continue – especially with the poor at the back door – the movement of people will continue, legal or not. But comprehensive reform can be a start toward a more equitable and just way forward.