When immigration attorney Roger Tsai told Orem Republican legislator and congressional candidate Stephen Sandstrom that when he passes another “symbolic bill that panders to the largely homogenous Utah population” in the 2012 Legislature just for political points, and that “nothing will have been accomplished,” it was actually the closest thing Sandstrom received to a compliment during the evening’s tense and sometimes raucous immigration forum.
Tsai, a veteran immigration attorney in Salt Lake City, qualified his rhetorical jab of Sandstrom’s talk of a statewide E-verify bill—one that would require all employers to check the immigration status of their employees—by complimenting Sandstrom for at least generating discussion. “Nothing will have been accomplished,” Tsai said of any state solution that could be offered in the next session. “But what you are doing is getting a lot of people to think about this issue, which is a great thing.”
While the panel included a small-business owner, a union representative and others, it was clearly a forum that drew more than 50 attendees focused largely on Sandstrom and the contentious House Bill 497 he passed in the 2011 session. Sandstrom deflected more than a half hour of criticism during the question-and-answer segment of the forum with ease. After passing his bill in the 2011 Legislature that required law enforcement to check the immigration status of individuals arrested for serious misdemeanors and felonies, among other provisions, Sandstrom had weathered months of criticism at debates, press conferences and media appearances. At last night’s forum hosted by the Enriching Utah Coalition, Sandstrom calmly responded to a dog-piling of critics and kept on message.
When a woman asked how he would feel if he lived in the United States illegally, Sandstrom didn’t blink—“I can’t answer your question like that, I’m not here illegally.” Instead he referenced a great grandfather who came to the U.S. from Sweden in the 1800s. “He did so in a legal way, and back then it was much easier to do that—we should have that type of system now.”Sandstrom said in referencing a move to reform and streamline legal immigration.
When accused by one audience member of creating a “climate of fear” with HB 497, Sandstrom pointed out that he also sponsored a bill last session to facilitate federal work visas for agricultural workers from the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico to come do legal work in Utah. “I passed a migrant-workers bill that nobody wants to talk about,” Sandstrom replied.
One woman in the audience cited a Pew Hispanic Center report that nearly three-quarters of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. had been in the country for longer than 10 years, asking if Sandstrom didn’t think there should be some path to citizenship offered to established immigrants. Sandstrom didn’t say no, just not yet, and instead repeated that if the country could reform the immigration process to make legal immigration easier, secure the border, improve immigration enforcement and pass a mandatory E-verify system—then talk of providing options for citizenship could be entertained.
“I’m not opposed to looking at different ideas,” Sandstrom said “But before we can do that we need to have enforcement and be willing to enforce our current laws.”
Sandstrom also repeatedly rebuffed criticism that his outlook lacked compassion, arguing that the issue affected human beings “on both sides of the issue.” A mandatory employee check like E-verify on the state level could stop identity theft, Sandstrom argued.
“I had a gentleman talk to me who just got married and had his wages garnished for $3,000 a month for four children he had in California. Well he didn’t have four children in California -- somebody had been using his social security number,” Sandstrom said. “We need to have an E-verify program that will protect citizens and children from these identity-theft issues.”Such a program, Sandstrom suggested, might come through legislation in the 2012 session, as current law only encourages Utah employers to use E-verify. But based on a recent Supreme Court decision, a new law could make it so that the state could revoke business licenses for companies that didn't use E-verify.
Other panelists like Brandt Goble, representing the Painters and Tapers Local 77 Union, argued that the construction industry was being devastated by unscrupulous employers taking advantage of undocumented labor he said comprised 30 percent or more of the national construction trade. He agreed more focus needs to be on employers instead of immigrants. “It’s a two-edged sword,” Goble said. “If they’re here and they are working, that means someone hired them. We should be going after these [employers] who are abusing their workers.”
Attorney Tsai, however, said that calls for enforcement were just unrealistic. He pointed out that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of the largest subdivisions of the Department of Homeland Security, which itself is one of the largest federal agencies—and even still in Utah, ICE investigators can only manage to audit 20-30 companies in Utah annually—out of tens of thousands of businesses. “We have limited resources,” Tsai said. “Even the largest federal agency that you can throw at this can only hit so many employers in the state. Enforcement is lackluster and it will continue to be.”
In another swing at Sandstrom’s past legislating, Tsai argued that state “solutions” were punitive measures to immigrants but were hardly fixes to what could only be a federal issue.
“What Sandstrom and his partners at the state level can do is to make the environment in Utah extremely uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants,” Tsai said. “They make it so every Hispanic person gets pulled over based on reasonable suspicion that they are undocumented and they can make it so employers are now using E-verify, but what they can’t do is reform the federal immigration system. They can’t determine who gets a visa and who gets a green card. It’s a farce to say we can fix it. I think it's misplaced political attention.”
But even this attack Sandstrom, on multiple occasions during the forum, not so subtly agreed with, and called for stronger leadership on the issue in Washington D.C.—which fortunately he’s ready to do something about since he is running for the opening in the 4th Congressional District.
“Once again, the thing we need is courageous leadership in Washington, D.C.,” Sandstrom said in his closing remarks. “It is a federal issue and all we can do here in the state of Utah are Band-aid provisions, and if we can find a solution, ultimately we can find something that’s going to work for everybody.”