SALT LAKE CITY — Former Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, sponsor of immigration enforcement legislation that was challenged in federal court, says he has no regrets about taking up the issue.
"It got the discussion going in our state, so some good things came of it. We started looking at the issue and maybe some people's minds changed because of it. Was it worth it? It probably was," he said.
But the Orem Republican, who returned to private life after an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2012, says if he could turn back the clock, he would have handled the issue differently.
"I think now, in hindsight, I would have gone about it in a different way. I would have actively engaged the Hispanic community and really sought their side of the story and what they're going through. If that would have happened when I was running the bill, it would have been a different bill," Sandstrom said Thursday, the day after a federal judge issued a mixed decision on constitutional challenges to the 2011 law.
U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups struck down parts of HB497, Utah's Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act, but allowed other portions to go into effect. For instance, the law required police to verify the immigration status of people arrested for a serious crime. That stands.
But the judge wrote that police cannot prolong a stop or detention "merely to confirm a person’s immigration status."
Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, which was among a number of civil rights groups that challenged the constitutionality of the law, said that the plaintiffs would prefer that the Utah Legislature repeal the law.
Short of that, the ACLU and other groups that represented the plaintiffs who challenged HB497, plan to meet with clients and other community allies to discuss what to do next. The ACLU also plans to ask law enforcement agencies how they plan to move forward after the court decision.
The law has been on hold since civil rights groups filed suit in November 2011. "Since it's been three years since the law was delayed, that's been terrific for providing opportunities for people in Utah to step back, take a breath and realize we need to have a different approach than what we were doing in terms of the fear and the vilifying," McCreary said.
Community activist Tony Yapias said the tenor of the immigration discussion is drastically different now than the years when the issues were hotly debated in state legislatures.
"Back in 2011 when this bill passed, we were in the middle of this anti-immigration wave that started in Arizona the year previous to that. We're past that now. There isn't this immigration fever going on at the state level, all the talk of 'Get the illegals out,' " he said.
By and large, community leaders and elected officials now understand that Congress is the proper forum for comprehensive immigration reform, he said. The community conversation has shifted, evidenced by the widespread support for the Utah Compact and ongoing efforts by faith, law enforcement and business leaders pushing for federal reform, Yapias said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, the Senate sponsor of HB497, said in a statement issued following Waddoups' decision that states will continue to play a role in immigration issues.
"The reason we passed this bill in 2011 was to provide state direction in these areas where the federal government was failing in their duty to protect Utah citizens. The states will continue to play a role in immigration issues. As in the past, I will explore this role in upcoming legislative sessions," the statement said in part.
Yapias said the House of Representatives has an opportunity to take up the issue this summer. If it doesn't, Americans need to pressure President Obama to do more to address the nation's broken immigration through executive orders, he said.
Yapias said he continues to encourage people who are not authorized to live in the United States but living productive lives to tell their stories. Understanding the human side of immigration changes hearts and policies.
That's what happened with Sandstrom, he says.
After the passage of HB497, Sandstrom took part in a panel discussion in West Valley City. After the presentation, a girl named Sara whose parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 3 years old, told him she had graduated from a Utah high school and she was facing a dead-end future.
Because she wasn't authorized to be in the United States, she had no Social Security number. But she had ambitions, given her high marks in school. But the most gutwrenching part of her story was that she viewed herself as an American.
Sandstrom said his intent in sponsoring HB497 was to help police "identify the criminal element in our state, the ones who had felonies or were under deportation order for felony convictions."
Waddoups' decision carved out sections of the bill Sandstrom said he later became uncomfortable with and left intact other sections he believes support the permissible efforts of law enforcement. He does not think the law should be repealed.
Sandstrom said he now knows much more about immigration, particularly the lives of people affected by the nation's broken system. Congress needs to move on comprehensive reform, he said. The future of national Republican party may well depend on Congress's handing of the issue, he said.
"Maybe I was being a little myopic," Sandstrom said of his handling of HB497 in 2011.
"I think my views have actually changed a lot since the passage of the law."