SALT LAKE CITY — Liberal immigration activists are looking to Utah as a compassionate and logical model for shaping the nation's future policies toward illegal immigrants.
Utah leaders – including government, education, business and religious groups – came together last fall to draft a set of principles to guide the immigration debate in the state. Those guidelines, known as the Utah Compact, state in part that illegal immigrants are essential to the economy and deserving of respect.
The recommendations are credited with helping pass immigration changes last month in the Utah Legislature that included enforcement revisions and a guest worker program.
"The leadership in Utah, through the Compact, changed the debate around the country," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum. "It's clear the Compact has struck a chord with the silent majority that wants reform."
Noorani is working with Utah officials to create a national version of the plan, which could be announced as early as this summer.
Opponents say the approach will lead to amnesty programs that only benefit big business and caution it will lead to more illegal immigration.
"They are trying to create the illusion of popular support for amnesty," said William Gheen, the executive director of the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration. "But the reverse is true. Most people only want enforcement."
Groups spearheaded by religious and business leaders in several other states are now adopting their own versions of the Utah Compact. Most are adopting Utah language that encourages keeping families together and urges compassion in law enforcement.
"It's important to represent the human side," said Kathryn Williams, co-chair of the Alliance for Immigration Reform in Indiana. "It's also important to set the tenor of the debate so it's about what happens to that human."
The alliance mirrored Utah's message when it created the Indiana Compact, which was unveiled earlier this year. It has support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Catholic Conference.
The initial goal for the Indiana plan – as well as similar drafts in Maine, Florida, Georgia and Kansas – is to avoid contentious legislation similar to what Arizona approved last year. That state's law sparked widespread controversy over provisions requiring police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion they're here illegally. That aspect of the law was put on hold by a federal judge.
Also prominent in the national debate are those who maintain that immigration is a federal issue and should not be handled on a state level. Such groups say that compact plans represent an unconstitutional flouting of federal powers.
Wendy Sefsaf, of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council, also points out another reason for skepticism. Even if the principles are laudable, she said, the results in Utah "did not live up to it" because it will create second-class workers who are not citizens.
Still, Utah does provide a starting point.
"We all have aspirational goals, and the compact has great aspirations," Sefsaf said. "But most states are just reacting. Utah at least tried something that wasn't just about deporting people."