SALT LAKE CITY — Despite the chill breeze that came with dusk, supporters of federal immigration reform and amnesty for Utah's illegal immigrants stood firm Monday on the south steps of the state Capitol.
"This building might look like the U.S. Capitol, but it is the wrong place for immigration reform," said Mark Alvarez, an attorney and radio host of Pulso Latino.
His sentiment for a federal, rather than a state, solution to illegal immigration was echoed earlier in the day at a news conference by local religious leaders. Both demonstrations took place on the first day of the 2011 Legislature, which will be dealing with about a half-dozen bills attempting to address immigration. The issue caught fire last year in Utah and other states after Arizona passed a controversial immigration law that has been largely blocked by a federal judge.
The late Monday rally in Utah, titled "Don't Let Utah Become Arizona," was organized by members of United for Social Justice, a Utah-based activist organization. Members led the crowd of more than 100 in chanting messages to Utah lawmakers, in English and in Spanish, including "fund education, not deportation" and "no human is illegal." They also chanted for amnesty.
"Something has to be done with our immigration laws," said Ellie Miller, a retired English as a second language teacher from Salt Lake. Her main concern was for the children, some of whom she taught, who are affected by anti-immigration laws.
"They can't go back," she said. "They came with their families."
A Division of Child and Family Services worker who wished to remain anonymous said she came to the rally to show her support for keeping families together. "People don't realize what damage it does to a child," she said.
Many Hispanic adults did not wish to comment on their attendance. Local high school students standing among the crowd, where signs such as "Who Would Jesus Deport?" were raised, said their motivation for attending was "to support."
Earlier in the day, local religious leaders called for Utah lawmakers to put pressure on the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"We believe that we need to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and provide them with an earned pathway to permanent residency, to protect family unity, and ensure the just and equitable treatment of all people," said the Rev. Steven A. Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, who organized the leaders for a news conference at the Capitol.
Klemz and others called for immigration reform at the federal level rather than passing stricter state laws, such as the bill Rep. Steven Sandstrom, R-Orem, is proposing.
"Immigration is a federal issue and there must be a federal solution, rather than the various attempts of states to craft proposals," said Dee Rowland, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
More than 30 members of various religious organizations, including the United Church of Christ, St. Mark's Cathedral, and the First Baptist Church, have signed a letter asking the United States Congress to pass "humane" immigration legislation. Letters have also been sent to Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.
"(Immigrants) are not so much breaking the law as they are being broken by the law," Rowland said. She suggested a path to citizenship for immigrants already living in Utah who are willing to pay a fine, undergo a criminal background check and provide proof of paying taxes.
Many leaders present at the conference, although not sponsored by the organizers of the Utah Compact, support and have signed the statement, which calls for Utah lawmakers to lead efforts in strengthening federal immigration laws and protecting national borders.
Adding to the onslaught of messages promoting immigration reform is a billboard recently erected on I-15 that reads: "God Doesn't Discriminate, Why Should Utah?" Cuentame, a Latino activist group and project of the grassroots organization Brave New Foundation, asked for $10,000 worth of donations via its Facebook page to sponsor the billboard.
The group cites Sandstrom's bill as motivation for the message.