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Governor is not afraid to talk about immigration

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Let's applaud Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for taking the "elephant" — illegal immigration — with him to visit Mexican President Vicente Fox last month. In February, the governor was the first elected official in the state to mention the "I" word. He not only made it a topic for discussion with Mexican officials, but also has now put it on his agenda for the National Governors Association to find and press for national solutions to our failed immigration policies.

It's refreshing to see our governor willing to use his political capital by placing immigration on the table for debate. His personal visit to Mexico, and his ability to speak frankly and thoughtfully about such a sensitive issue, I believe, helped him gain the respect of Mexican officials.

The problem of illegal immigration is dividing Utah citizens more each day. Both sides of the issue have valid arguments based on their perceptions of what they want to see. The great influx of illegal immigrants has changed our landscape and the quality of life we have come to value.

Globalization changed our world, and the terror of 9/11 became the flashpoint that made us realize the dangers and challenges America faces. It exposed how our sclerotic public institutions and laws have become the problem rather than the solution.

It's a different world we live in today as Thomas Friedman has stated in the title of his book, "The World is Flat." And we have been caught flat-footed. Our political leaders, who are supposed to look after our national interests, appear unwilling to use their political capital to do so, while gaining political support from special-interest groups who benefit from outdated policies. Change is often frightening and, when feeling vulnerable, the instinctive human reaction is to turn inward and look for easy scapegoats, such as illegal Mexicans (all Latinos are thrown in the mix).

Today, our daily lives are being affected. Our schools, health and public safety systems are struggling to survive, running on overload and costly. However, few have taken the time to point out the contribution illegal immigrants have made to help our economy stay afloat in a changing world.

The reality is that we live in this new "flat world," and it would do us well to do what Americans have always done when facing danger — pull together. We are fortunate to have a governor who seems to have good instincts about doing the public good and who is naive enough to think he can bring about change.

And you know what? The naive ones often become the great leaders because that's what it takes to bring about change while maintaining our common values. People, especially when facing tough times, look for a leader who can sense and articulate what is in their hearts and minds and begin offering hope and solutions. Huntsman, by bringing up illegal immigration for public debate at the local and national level, is doing what he said he would do — take risks!

His greatest challenge will be in bringing together the diverse leadership of our state, including business, religious, labor and community groups, to help. The problem cannot be solved by government alone, rather by people supporting leaders willing to stand up for the common good.

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce should take an active role in helping to solve the problems facing Hispanics since they stand to benefit from illegal immigration. The Alliance for Unity coalition that was founded for the purposes of healing the divide they believe exists in our community is silent on the most polarizing issue facing our citizens. One would hope that group would begin speaking out.

We have a governor who seems to have the needed humility to know he does not have the answers and who is willing to listen. However, there are those benefiting from illegal immigration — businesses and employers — who are pressing for the status quo; and, on the other side, citizens who want change, feel threatened, worry about national security and feel taxed unfairly.

What the governor seems to need most are people who have the public interest at heart and want to solve problems consistent with the values about human life that we hold dearly, rather than those looking for political gain.

As he said at his inauguration, "We live in an era in which taking no risk is sometimes the biggest risk of all.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net