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Irrational debate and political dishonesty should not threaten the legacy of U.S. immigration

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In Utah, undocumented immigrants work in agriculture, construction, landscaping, hospitality and other key economic sectors. The ski industry, dairy farmers and other businesses rely on these workers for difficult, often dangerous labor that most of us avoid. Independent-contractor schemes, temporary agencies and various other tactics are used to skirt federal laws prohibiting employment of the undocumented. This amounts to a de facto amnesty, but the major benefits accrue to economic interests, not to undocumented workers, who are frequently exploited for pennies on the dollar—or aren't paid at all.

A prevailing narrative arising from a 2011 "Utah Solution" posits that the state favors immigration reform. This fabrication was developed to counter an image of the state and the LDS Church as anti-immigrant. This dishonest narrative, cheered on by the LDS-Church-owned Deseret News, led to a package of Utah laws that included an Arizona-style crackdown law—largely struck down in court—and state work permits similar to indentured servitude.

Immigration is a federal matter, so the Supremacy Clause would render the Utah permits unconstitutional. Legislative counsel advised the same in 2011, but legislators, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Gov. Gary Herbert did not care. They led undocumented immigrants into false hope that exposed them to swindlers. These Utah policymakers also thumbed their noses at the Constitution. To avoid legal defeat, legislators and the governor have delayed implementation of the law three times, most recently until summer 2017.

As well as giving many undocumented immigrants false hope, the misinformation stifled conversation: Utahns believed the lies and deemed immigration solved. Regrettably, both the Utah Democratic Party and the Republican Party subordinated vulnerable human beings to economic and institutional interests.

The "Utah Solution" failed not only on Constitutional grounds but also on political ones: The Congressional delegation remained unmoved. Among Utah Congressmen, only Sen. Orrin Hatch stood for immigration reform. The rest, including the Democrat, opposed reform or remained silent.

During the past 10 years, three serious attempts to reform immigration failed.

The basic challenges for reform have long been fixing and streamlining the system for those who wish to come here, modernizing internal and external enforcement mechanisms to improve compliance with and respect for the law, and dealing with the undocumented immigrant population.

President Reagan signed major immigration reform in 1986, but recently, Republicans have been obstructionist. Many claim to favor reform, but they neither propose anything nor allow votes.

Expressing frustration over Republican inaction, President Obama announced action that included a process to grant parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents temporary status in the United States if they pass background checks and meet other criteria including having lived here for five years or more.

This executive action is not the first. In 2011, the Obama administration published principles for prosecutorial discretion that focused resources on high-priority cases. In June 2012, the administration laid out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has allowed more than 600,000 high-achieving youth—6,000-plus in Utah—to obtain work permits. Republicans and others complained about DACA and filed lawsuits, but DACA remained legally sound.

In March 2013, the implementation of provisional unlawful-presence waivers helped thousands of families avoid separations that can last months or years.

In November 2013, "parole in place" (akin to humanitarian relief) for close relatives of people serving in the military eliminated the needless separation of families during the process of obtaining lawful status. Recently, on my Spanish-language radio show Sin Rodeos, a guest said that he did not particularly like Obama but that parole in place had allowed him, a member of the Utah National Guard, to help his undocumented parents quickly gain permanent residence. Otherwise, his parents would have had to leave the U.S. for 10 years.

The current immigration action centers on family unity, but it is not all-inclusive. On Sept. 3, 2014, 137 law professors wrote Obama and laid out broad authority for executive action. The Department of Justice recently advised that immigration action was OK for parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents, but not for parents of DACA recipients.

Immigration reform and executive actions will never be fair to all people, but policymakers should be mindful of human stories. Mothers and fathers who have raised foreign-born children here for 15 years or more will not qualify under this immigration action, yet they will be happy for their children who do qualify. Why should these parents be excluded? The average undocumented immigrant has lived here for 13 years. Childless undocumented immigrants often do strenuous, thankless jobs, yet mostly will remain in immigration limbo regardless of their contributions and effort. Why should they be excluded?

The history of immigration in the U.S. has been overwhelmingly positive. Immigrants have enriched our economy and society. Irrational debate and political dishonesty should not threaten that legacy.

Mark Alvarez is the immigration specialist for Telemundo Utah and an attorney with Immigrant Defenders Law Group.

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