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Undocumented: Emotions run high, but Utah tacitly approves of illegals

First in a seven-part series.

They are dairy farmers, truck drivers, students, business owners and construction workers. They pick the fruit we love this fall. They clean our offices. They make our restaurant meals and change our hotel sheets.

Officials estimate about 85,000 residents of Utah are in this country illegally, and there is no more controversial discussion than the one that centers on the right of these residents to be in the United States.

"Why don't they want to stop it?"

Wally McCormick stood before news cameras this summer, angry that his fellow Utahns aren't more up in arms. He says he's willing to die for the anti-immigration cause. The 68-year-old, an organizer for the anti-immigration group Utah Minuteman, blames illegal immigration for crime, disease, unemployment and stresses on social welfare systems.

"Why aren't people asking that question? Why won't you close the border, Mr. President? Why won't you put National Guard on the border?"

"I think the emotion of the issues exceeds the reality," Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said about this lightning-rod topic. "I think also there's great deal of exaggeration of the facts."

A team of Deseret Morning News reporters studied this subject for more than four months. As part of this week's series, "Life in the Shadows," reporters interviewed dozens of undocumented immigrants and officials who run the schools, hospitals, businesses and social service agencies.

Reporters talked with federal attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes, U.S. border patrol officers who try to keep out those trying to jump the line, immigration attorneys who fight to keep illegal residents here and leaders of the movement that promises to push them back across the borders.

They also traveled to Mexico to see firsthand the homeland so many leave.

Morning News reporters found that despite all the talk and all the emotion, all the conservative talk radio chatter and all the opposition, the Utah establishment has tacitly approved of this population of residents. In fact, many admit the population makes the Utah economy go.

Maybe most important, federal officials charged with enforcing immigration laws are unconcerned with illegal residents in Utah who are working, rearing families and staying out of trouble. Instead, they are putting a full-court press on those in this population committing heinous acts such as smuggling humans, committing sex crimes, running drugs, manufacturing fraudulent documents and taking hostages.

"We prosecute the most dangerous group of people and try to get the biggest bang for our buck," said Dustin Pead, head of immigration prosecution for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City.

Members of the anti-immigration movement call immigrants a population of "illegal aliens." Federal agents assigned to track them down call them "undocumented immigrants." Mostly, they are people trying to make a better life for themselves in Utah:

They are moms and dads like Angel and Maria, who both work full time on a Brigham City dairy farm. Their faraway hopes for legal status lie on the narrow shoulders of 4-year-old Angelito, born here and a U.S. citizen. When the youngster turns 18, he can sponsor his parents to apply for citizenship.

They are laborers like Esteban Cosillos, who passed through Utah's southeastern corner on Labor Day with eight men packed into the back of a Ford Explorer. They were on their way to Denver to find construction jobs, Cosillos told the state trooper who pulled him over and then let him go.

They are young people like 5-year-old Yolanda from Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents paid a "coyote," a human smuggler who brings people into the United States illegally, $5,000 to drive them across the border two years ago. Her father has a job at an Ogden manufacturing plant but has no health insurance. Yolanda received her kindergarten immunizations at a free clinic.

They are Mexican nationals like "Sarah," who works as a maid in a northern Utah motel. She came here illegally with her husband 10 years ago and has three children. She's been saving her money and hopes to move back to Mexico City within the year.

In some cases, they are criminals like Jesus Hernandez, who killed his boss, who Hernandez says was cheating him out of his modest wages.

Joe Romel, agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Salt Lake City, calls the scope of illegal immigration "overwhelming."

"It's a difficult task, but wherever you see a thriving economy and wherever there are low-paying jobs, the undocumented illegal people will take them. The documented, legal residents don't want these jobs," he said.

This assertion lies at the crux of a heated debate about illegal immigration.

When pioneers settled Utah, nearly all immigrants were Anglo-Europeans. By the year 2000, 90 percent of all immigrants coming into the Beehive State were Latinos. Because of this dramatic shift, Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration now classifies Utah as one of the new "gateway" states for those leaving other countries for a life in the United States.

Most undocumented residents are from Mexico, some come from South America, Canada and Asian countries. All seek the opportunities afforded by Utah's economy and culture.

"When people say (illegal) immigrants, they not talking about your Canadian friends or European overstays," immigration attorney Chris Keen of Provo said. "They're talking about Mexicans."

At political conventions and caucus meetings, the question arises: "What are you going to do about these illegal immigrants? That is how they perceive the undocumented population," Keen said. "I don't see any clear evidence of how they're hurting anyone."

Many, like the 300 to 500 members of anti-immigration groups in Utah, disagree.

On a table made available at a recent gathering by the anti-immigration group Utah Minuteman, a flier touted "Facts regarding immigration."

"Legal and illegal immigration is a continued threat to our culture, national sovereignty, rule of law, the economy and racial conflict." Utah Minuteman officials said they did not know who sent out the flier.

"People throw information out there," said Luz Robles, interim director of the state's Office of Ethnic Affairs. "It's not data-driven, and they are creating a panic. It's the fear factor at work."

The seven-day Morning News series tackles some of these assertions and looks at the following questions:

What do undocumented workers do for Utah's economy?

To what degree do the children of undocumented workers tax Utah's already overloaded education system?

Who are the men and women who have risked their lives to pursue opportunities in Utah?

How does this growing population impact Utah crime, health care and social services?

Congress and the president ultimately set policy about illegal immigration. What is happening nationally in this arena?

What strategies are federal officials taking in Utah to prosecute those who are here illegally?

An intense study of research about Utah's undocumented population reveals a startling disarray of data.

Because of constitutional concerns, lack of manpower, jurisdictional power or lack of will, there is no local clearinghouse for the issue that everyone seems to care so much about.

But a recent survey, conducted for the Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV by Dan Jones and Associates, sheds some light on Utahns' opinions about illegal immigrants.

Most residents are sympathetic to those illegal immigrants who are here, but they don't want any more coming in.

Utahns are divided about what term best describes those living in the United States without proper documentation. The words they use might be reflective of their attitudes about them.

Among the four options presented in the Morning News poll, 31 percent favored "illegal alien," 25 percent chose "illegal immigrant," 23 percent picked "undocumented" and 17 percent opted for simply "illegals."

More than one quarter of Utahns say they know immigrants living in the state without documentation, according to the poll.

Further study of the poll shows Utahns are conflicted in their sentiments about illegal residents.

Most Utahns favor efforts of Utah Minuteman to close the borders, and they even support profiling at job sites. But they also supported in-state tuition for undocumented students.

More than half believe children born in the United States to illegal parents shouldn't receive citizenship. Rescinding that right would take a constitutional amendment. But they also favor a "program" that would allow them to stay in America without penalty and obtain citizenship.

Nearly 60 percent think illegal immigrants hurt the state and national economy, but they also believe children of illegal immigrants ought to be able to receive an education, medical care and free school lunch.

The executive director of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative political think tank in Salt Lake City, struggles with how to deal with illegal immigrants.

There is a humanity that has to be applied to illegal immigration "because these are real people with real families. They shouldn't be treated like

objects or cattle," Paul T. Mero said. "But it is kind of like the dead body in the room. You can't get past the fact that it is illegal."

Still, Mero sees illegal immigration like a speed limit law. People speed all the time, but they don't turn themselves in.

"And this has that feel to it," he said. "It's not an exact analogy, but it has that nuance."

Mero also likens illegal immigration to people moving from one African nation to another seeking a better life.

"You're really almost dealing with refugees," he said. "What do you do? I really don't know."

Mike Lee worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office before becoming general counsel in Huntsman's administration. He knows there is frustration that the states don't do more to tackle immigration. But a supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution says it's a federal jurisdiction to regulate immigration.

"We can't do it," Lee said. "We can't round people up and deport them."

Clearly, this is an issue that's here to stay, Huntsman says. "You just can't wish everyone home and expect it to disappear."

Coming Monday: Border Patrol

Federal agents call them "undocumented immigrants." Members of the anti-immigration movement call them "illegal aliens." You might know them as your neighbors. According to the latest estimates, 85,000 Utahns entered the country illegally, mainly through Mexico. Beginning today in a seven-part series, "Life in the Shadows," the Deseret Morning News explores the facts and the myths of the emotionally charged issue of illegal immigration.