Rep. Scapegoat: Stephen Sandstrom 

We have a serious immigration problem, but scapegoating Mexicans isn’t going to change it.

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When I say some of my best friends are Mexicans, I mean it. It’s not a toss-away line, something I would say to endear myself to anyone, especially to other friends who (sadly) lack Mexican friends. I figure that if you grew up in Utah and you weren’t befriended by a Mexican family, you and I are not going to get along. To the chagrin of many small-minded Utahns who hate reading about it, I’m proud of my “dirty Greek” heritage. If I were forced to trade, though, I’d trade to Mexican.

I’d trade to Italian third, and it’s a tie between Serbian or Croatian for fourth. I won’t say what would be next, so as to leave all other ethnicities in the hunt except for two—nothing personal, Okur, Max and Rick G., but it would be hard to face my relatives in Greece as a German or a Turk.

But Mexican? Yeah, I could do that. I was lucky enough to grow up with Mexicans in the copper-mining town of Bingham Canyon. They nurtured me. They fed me. They made me laugh. They taught me to listen to Mexican music—and to Elvis. They loved their religion and practiced it faithfully. They nursed and nourished their families. They had pictures of John F. Kennedy on their living-room walls. They enlisted in the armed forces without reservation during the Vietnam War—and three of them died there.

Growing up, I never heard Mexicans or Mexican-Americans referred to as Hispanics or Latinos—the inclusive, kinder and gentler terms born of history, geography and politically correctness. I never heard the words “illegal immigrant,” either, which I believe is just code for “taco bender.” Some derisive and ignorant Utahns referred to my Mexican friends as “spics,” “wetbacks,” “beaners,” and “cherry pickers.” Funny, they sometimes did pick cherries—down in Utah County, home of Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is touting a new law he thinks will solve the problem of immigration reform. That must have been quite a sight back then, watching truckloads of Mexicans roll into town to pick the cherries and then move on to the next town, the next crop, the next harvest. Their work revealed a basic truism of Utah life that holds today: Utahns like cheap produce, but they don’t like to produce it.

It was one thing to curiously tolerate those brown, mustachioed Mexicans, blistering under the hot sun in their flannel shirts and rolled-up jeans, on a seasonal basis. It became less tolerable when they had the audacity to learn nonseasonal trades besides those in the aforementioned mining camps (where they could live and work principally unseen by pious eyes; or, better yet, get blown up). When work in the fields and orchards diminished (succumbing to urban sprawl), Mexicans began taking on jobs in the same acreage that once grew the radishes—except now, they were doing landscaping, homebuilding, cooking or cleaning. With year-round work available, and with unscrupulous accomplices in the business world hiring them, Mexicans moved to Utah in droves. Never mind that they were often mysteriously deported on paydays, leaving behind the Social Security taxes they’d paid (but would never collect anyway) for "honest" Utahns to benefit from.

Which leads to a second basic Utah truism: Utahns like things so cheap that, even though they despise Mexicans, they’ll still hire them to tend their lawns for less money than they’d pay their own sons. Which leads to the third: If their son doesn’t turn on the water and burns the lawn, the Mexican will be blamed. And the fourth: Mexicans are to blame for everything, even for speaking Spanish in their Spanish-language LDS wards.

There are hundreds of online comments regarding Sandstrom’s proposed law that confirm what I’ve known my whole life—bigotry, if not overt racism, is alive and well in Utah. I once described the anonymous Internet comment boards as an electronic KKK. Allow the shield of anonymous comments, and you will read how Mexicans are drug-dealing, lazy, corrupt thieves stealing from good Americans like the commenters themselves. Remove the shield, and those same commenters hustle the Mexican waitress while savoring each bite of their $3.99 ham and eggs.

On TV, Sandstrom moused his way through the Capitol Hill press conference, his voice cracking as he presented his immigration bill. Surrounded by a vocal chorus of Hispanics and Latinos, he was clearly nervous. He looked like a white rice kernel in a bag of brown rice. For a moment I thought, “Aha! Now he knows what it feels like to be alone and frightened with no one to trust and nowhere to turn.” Nah. Didn’t happen. Sandstrom is determined to carry his bill (costs unknown) to the Legislature.

We have a serious immigration problem, but scapegoating Mexicans isn’t going to change it. The problem will not be solved by deputizing our police in a lame effort to ferret out those who are here illegally (and, illegal or not, who are protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution). A real immigration bill wouldn’t go after some guy with a shovel and a trowel trying to feed his family; it would go after the guy who had hired him. But, that would mean Sandstrom would have to go after his own friends, neighbors and associates—the ones who owned the cherry orchards, who sold them to their buddies in land development, who contracted with their construction friends, who hired the Mexicans.

Sandstrom will never do that. There’s no chance he will own up to the real truth: that he remains purposely blind when it comes to “illegal” immigration.

John Saltas:

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