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Huntsman searches for solutions on immigration

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. visited Mexican President Vicente Fox in July. The two discussed the increasing rise of Mexican nationals in Utah, where officials estimate 85,000 people live illegally.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. visited Mexican President Vicente Fox in July. The two discussed the increasing rise of Mexican nationals in Utah, where officials estimate 85,000 people live illegally.
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has positioned himself at the forefront of the immigration issue.

With his big-picture outlook and international experience, Huntsman says he hasn't visited or lived in any country in the world that hasn't felt immigration pressures.

Here in Utah — where officials estimate 85,000 people live illegally — he hopes to elevate discussion above rhetoric and sensationalism and develop policies to address concerns.

He hears the radio snippets and sees the accusations on television. Everyone, he says, has an anecdote or a quip about how undocumented residents impact the lives of Utahns and the state's economy but few facts governing this discussion.

"As an elected official, this is somewhat troubling because we're not allowing the data to guide us. We're allowing emotion to guide us."

Huntsman has also asked the 18 members of the Western Governors Association to consider immigration reform at its upcoming meetings in November. It will be the first time the organization has talked about this controversial issue.

"I want to be a catalyst and report good ideas that will lead to a philosophy. That's what we need first and foremost."

But it seems the governor is following the will of Utahns. In a recent poll, 85 percent of Utahns called it important for him to focus on immigration issues.

It is clear that Utah is in another period where immigration is in the spotlight. This shouldn't surprise us, he says, because immigration has been intrinsic in our history for a century.

People look to move up the ladder no matter where you are, he said. "So, if it isn't people from south of the border, it's going to be people who are migrating from other parts of the world."

He outlined some of his sentiments on immigration concerns in a recent interview.

Despite billions of dollars spent on "homeland security" and more rigorous border enforcement, the number of folks traveling over the border— about 500,000 a year — has been steady for 10 years.

"I think it's economics. It's still supply and demand that drives it," Huntsman said. "Where there are opportunities, you will see a flow of traffic to meet those opportunities."

So implicit in any new policy is going to be how you address 4 million to 5 million undocumented Mexican nationals who are in the United States today, he said. The policy will have to include an earned right-to-work permit and some kind of reliable registration so officials know where they are living and working.

Undocumented residents could then earn the right to hold a work permit for two or three years, he said. "The work permit then is passage to a green card, the green card is then passage to U.S. citizenship."

He also expressed empathy for children born to undocumented immigrants. Youngsters shouldn't be penalized because they were part of a family that was searching for a better opportunity.

"A lot of these kids were either born here or certainly were not in a position in their earlier lives to have any influence over the outcome of their journey," he said.

"They were brought here. Does that mean we disregard them and we kind of cancel them out from achieving the American dream?

Huntsman also hopes Mexico will continue to do its part to solve the flow of residents from south of the border.

In Huntsman's recent talks with Mexican officials, President Vicente Fox outlined economic development efforts he says will bring 500,000 to 1 million new jobs a year to Mexico.

Some in the anti-immigration movement do not like Huntsman's coziness with the vast country that begins 500 miles south of Utah.

"Jon Huntsman Jr. is public enemy No. 1," Minuteman Alex Segura said at an August rally. "I'm going to try everything to derail Huntsman's efforts."

But the governor says he's not trying to be an apologist for Mexico. Officials there seem to be doing their best to discourage the flow of people moving out of Central America and broader Latin America to Mexico, he says.

"They will tell you they turn away 300,000 to 500,000 per year, primarily from Central America," the governor said. "And if Mexico doesn't turn them back, they come right through porous borders right into the U.S."

One of the most important tenets of Utah and the nation is a sense of "openness," Huntsman said. " . . . An openness to ideas, openness to goods and services, an openness to people.

"That's who we are as a country. It's what we've always been. I think it will long be a part of our foundation."