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BYU professor takes on immigration bills

SALT LAKE CITY — A Brigham Young University professor is among those challenging facts and figures proponents of illegal immigration bills use to make their case for tough enforcement laws.

One of those areas is crime, where it's commonly suggested that the rate is higher among illegal immigrants than the general population.

"In examining the data, it's just hard to see that there's a strong connection between undocumented immigrants and crime," said Charlie Morgan, a BYU sociology professor who studies immigration.

He said his research into Utah prison and jail populations shows about 5 percent of inmates are undocumented immigrants. "That's about what we would expect given that about 4 to 5 percent of Utah's population are undocumented immigrants," he said.

Morgan joined Todd Landfried, spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, at a news conference Friday organized by the Enriching Utah Coalition.

Landfried, who testified against Utah Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's enforcement-only bill, said proponents of the bills are entitled to their opinions but not their own facts.

"Out of bad information and bad data you get bad public policy," he said.

Morgan said he's not trying to say illegal immigrants are not committing crimes including identity theft. But, he said, that could be resolved through a guest worker program or giving them some sort of number that allows them to work.

Utah already has strong illegal immigration enforcement options including a state strike force that goes after criminals and the federal 287 (g) program that allows local police to act as ICE agents. In addition, legal status is already checked for those booked into jail.

"It's hard for me to understand how these enforcement bills are going to change what we're already doing other than potentially diverting critical resources that we're now using to catch undocumented immigrants and going after other people who may be here just to work or support their families," he said.

Morgan said 75 percent of undocumented workers are part of the formal economy. They pay income taxes and Social Security without the possibility of any return, he said.

Also, he said only about 10 percent of what illegal immigrants earn is sent back to their home countries, meaning 90 percent of it is spent in the state.

Morgan said Utah's illegal immigrant population is growing rapidly and is now estimated at 110,000. But to put things into perspective, he said, 21 other states have larger populations and 16 states have faster growing populations than Utah.

Utah is just one state among others dealing with the issue, he said.

Morgan said he doesn't have a viewpoint on any specific immigration law.

"The problem as I see it is we don't have enough visas for people to come here legally," he said. "I think what you need to do is give enough visas and give people the incentive to do it the right way and they wouldn't be crossing the border illegally."

Landfried said illegal immigration is federal issue and state lawmakers would be better served to work with the congressional delegation to solve the problem.

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com