CEPEDA: State measures aren't the solution for immigration

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Post will be running opinion pieces by Esther Cepeda to fill the column space left by the death of David Broder. Let us know what you think of her viewpoints by filling out our online letter form.

A casual observer might welcome Utah’s recently approved legislation to grant work permits to illegal immigrants and allow police officers to determine the immigration status of certain suspects as a step in the right direction. It might seem a sign that, at least at the state level, legislators of opposing ideologies are willing to take big risks to circumvent the federal government’s stuporous inaction on comprehensive immigration reform.

Scanning headlines such as “Utah GOP Adopts Immigration Alternative,” “The Anti-Arizonans,” “Utah Seeks a Better Way on Illegal Immigration,” one might be forgiven for thinking that forging a middle path between draconian enforcement-only measures and fling-the-doors-open amnesty could be a model for how the country approaches the prickly issue of what to do with the 11.2 million illegal immigrants who live in the United States.

But the devil is in the details. For closer observers, the picture is bleak. It smacks of window dressing.

Though the package of bills was negotiated, passed and delivered to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk for a final signature, there are no guarantees that the legislation will ever be acted on. Predictably, few are happy with the compromise. But the more important point is that the pesky business of the enforcement of immigration laws is the exclusive power of the federal government. That’s the same standard under which the U.S. Department of Justice went to court to stop most of Arizona’s “papers please” law from going into effect.

And speaking of the law enforcement measures, you might be wondering how the enforcement guidelines that Utah lawmakers negotiated — in a package of bills that includes a guest worker program, a cooperative migrant worker agreement with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and a program for residents to sponsor and be financially responsible for an “alien friend” — compares to Arizona’s dreaded law.

It’s not much different.

While Arizona legislators wanted to be able to stop anyone and ask for official documents to prove immigration status on a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be in the country illegally, the Utah bill would require an officer to determine a suspect’s status if the person was stopped or detained for committing a felony or serious misdemeanor. Such checks would be optional under lesser circumstances, such as a traffic stop, but some people still feel the law goes way too far.

“Look, we cooperate with immigration enforcement officials during criminal investigations all the time,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. “It’s not like I’m soft on crime, but it has always been my belief that it is not the role of local law enforcement agencies to enforce the immigration laws.

“Almost 30 percent of my population is Hispanic, and I also have a legal refugee community. And even just talk about this legislation is driving a wedge between our department and them.”

I spoke to Burbank on the eve of the governor signing the immigration bills and he was steadfast that his department will opt out of any checks for legal residency. “But the damage will be done,” Burbank said. “There are 15 different police agencies who patrol the Salt Lake Valley alone, and if even one of them does this, then it might as well be all of us because once word gets out, people assume every police department is doing it.”

According to Burbank, it’s not just that the extra enforcement responsibilities are expensive and unfunded. Or that community relations and the ability to solve and prevent crimes will suffer if the local police are required to wade into immigration matters. “Deportation just does not work well for us as a deterrent,” Burbank said. “In fact it has little to impact because people consistently return as soon as they are able.”

And if they don’t return to Utah or Arizona, they’ll head to other states with different laws and welcoming employers.

Let’s face it: State measures might provide legislative “feel goods” and even solve a few local problems in the short term. But a patchwork of state solutions that could be implemented differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is not the answer.

Ironically, that’s the point that nearly every organization fighting for strict enforcement or immigration law reform agrees on: Piecemeal immigration solutions aren’t going to get us anywhere in the long run.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. E-mail her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.