Chris Berbert stepped a straight line between third base and home. The little league coach, landscape rake in hand, left prints in the infield soil as he walked through both sides of the issue driving political conversation in his hometown of Herriman, Utah.

An influx in immigration has impacted residents of the thriving Salt Lake County suburb more than most. Berbert, the chair of Herriman’s community nonprofit and a former member of the city planning commission, said city residents have tried to welcome migrants with open arms. But, he’s quick to add, that doesn’t spare the government from its responsibility to maintain structure and safety in the immigration process.

“I believe that you need to come here legally,” Berbert said. “I don’t think it is safe and will actually get the community to continue to grow properly when they don’t.”

Chris Berbert is interviewed next to his son at the Main Street Park in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Across the country, Republican candidates and voters have been focused on the southern border crisis and a broken asylum system, including in Utah’s Senate primary race which concludes on Tuesday. The topic isn’t national for Berbert though. For him, and his neighbors in the city of 60,000, it’s hyperlocal, impacting everything from schooling to housing availability to his son’s baseball team.

Immigration policy “ranks up there” as an important issue, Berbert said, as he considers who to vote for to replace Sen. Mitt Romney. While Berbert said his corner of the valley has yet to feel “the negative effect” of unprecedented levels of immigration, city and state officials say resources have become strained even as residents attempt to walk the line between openness and order on what Berbert called “a tricky subject.”

How many migrants have entered Herriman?

It has been more than tricky for city leaders, not just in Herriman but around the state, to navigate caring for a new vulnerable group of people without additional funds.

“Herriman has definitely seen an influx of migrants from other countries, just as a lot of cities in Utah have,” Herriman City communications manager Jonathan LaFollette said. “It’s a statewide thing that’s happening and really across the entire country.”

The number of new immigration proceedings filed in Salt Lake County courts, which can be a good indicator of how many asylum seeking migrants have entered an area, increased by 1,600% over the last three years, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse data.

The number rose from 752 in 2020 — a year with pandemic-era immigration restrictions under former President Donald Trump — to 12,840 in 2023 — a year with historic levels of border crossings under President Joe Biden, who changed border policy upon entering office to lower the threshold for asylum claims and to allow asylum seekers to await their claims inside the country.

So far, 2024 has already seen 10,655 new immigration proceedings filed in Salt Lake County — a number which may or may not include the 2,000 migrants who have been sent to Utah by the city of Denver, Colorado, without notification over the past two years.

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Herriman is not spending “a dime of public money in any sort of relief effort,” LaFollette said. That hasn’t kept residents from stepping up to help through organizations like church groups and the Columbus center, which has dozens of unpaid volunteers that help with English lessons and clothing drives. But rapid population growth, “regardless of where it’s coming from,” demands increased resources from the city or state.

“It’s not an issue that cities have caused, or cities can solve, but it’s one that we’re presented with, and it is up to us, in some ways, to address the issue within our purview,” LaFollette said

Families play in the splash pad outside City Hall in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

How has immigration strained Herriman resources?

Of all the places where local resources have been stressed, the most visible is public education, according to Utah state Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, who grew up in Herriman and represents the majority of the city in the Utah House of Representatives.

“We’ve seen a ... huge influx of students coming into the school system that wasn’t necessarily anticipated,” said Pierucci, who chairs the state’s Education Interim Committee.

On Wednesday, during a presentation to the committee, Jordan School District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey said his schools have seen a 92.6% increase in students who need to learn English over the last 6 years, growing from roughly 2,400 to 4,500 students.

Schools in Herriman have seen the largest increase in the district, with some schools going from less than 1% English language learners to nearly 12% in a few years. The number of students with very low English fluency in the district has also spiked over the last two years, from around 750 in 2022 to more than 2,000 in 2024, with the spike especially prominent in Herriman schools.

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The surge in immigration — which Pierucci attributed to Biden administration policies and word getting out in the “asylum seeking community that Herriman was a friendly, welcoming place” — could be as great as 10,000 migrants in the “southwest corner of our Valley,” Pierucci said. This has led to depleted food pantries, increased pressure on an already unaffordable housing market and has even led to Riverton city courts doubling their budget for translation services, according to the lawmaker.

“It’s top of mind for people. And they’re definitely looking for tougher policies at the border to just stop the flow,” Pierucci said.

How will immigration affect Herriman voters?

This description of voters with immigration “top of mind” fits Andrew and Sarah Abeyta, who have lived in Herriman for five years and are the parents to three young children with one on the way.

“We’re definitely being invaded. You see it all the time on social media, on the news. They’re coming in like crazy,” Andrew told the Deseret News as he sat with his family at the splash pad across from Herriman City Hall. “It’s definitely concerning for us as parents.”

When asked whether they were leaning toward a candidate for U.S. Senate, the couple chose Trent Staggs, the mayor of neighboring Riverton, because they felt he was the most likely to “keep our community safe.”

“Anyone who loves God, loves our country, cares about good versus evil,” Sarah said.

Andrew and Sarah Abeyta are interviewed outside City Hall in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Robert and Barbara Ernest — lifetime Herriman residents, now retired — said they were worried an increase in migrant workers would make it more difficult for younger residents to find jobs. They called for stronger enforcement at the border to incentivize legal immigration.

“You ought to close it and let them come in legally,” Robert said. “As far as I’m concerned, they all ought to go back and have to come in the right way. You look at every other country, they don’t let them come across your borders anymore.”

The Ernests, who spoke to the Deseret News from their back yard in northern Herriman, said they had already voted for Rep. John Curtis who represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District.

Landon Ashton, a registered Republican like the Abeytas and Ernests, said immigration was important to his vote, but in a different way from the other two couples.

Landon Ashton is interviewed outside City Hall in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

“If they need to come over to America and get away from what they’re dealing with back home, good. However, I think there needs to be a little bit more structure to it,” said Ashton, who was also at the splash pad with his young family. “And really, I think we should just make it easier in general for everyone.”

Ashton said he needed to do some “homework” before knowing who he supported as Utah’s next senator but he wants a candidate who will approach reforms to the immigration system as a whole as opposed to strong rhetoric about closing the border.

Utah’s four Republican Senate candidates have all picked up similar messaging on the issue of immigration. Staggs, Curtis, former state House Speaker Brad Wilson and Jason Walton have each placed the blame for the country’s immigration crisis on the current president, instead of Congress, and have called for a return to the border security policies of Trump, namely the “Remain in Mexico” executive order that forced migrants seeking asylum to wait out their immigration proceedings on the other side of the border.

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How do migrants get to Herriman?

Directly between Herriman High School and Copper Mountain Middle School lies Copperwood Apartments, home to one of the city’s largest communities of migrants, mostly from Venezuela.

An apartment complex is seen in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Yohandri Gonzalez arrived in Herriman six months ago, following a harrowing four-month journey through the jungles of Panama, several Central American countries and the deserts of Mexico, which included a ride on a train migrants often call the “the beast” that “everyone rides,” Gonzalez said.

Upon crossing the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, Gonzalez told border authorities of his situation in Venezuela and he was let in and told he had one year to make an official asylum request. Gonzalez said he then traveled to Colorado where he was flown into Salt Lake City from Denver, likely as part of a program that was recently condemned by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

Standoff at Eagle Pass

Gonzalez, age 21, said in Spanish that he left Venezuela, which has teetered on the verge of political collapse in recent years, “for a better future, and to help my parents also and because of the economy because it’s very bad in my country.”

Gonzalez came to Herriman to live with his cousins who he said have lived in Copperwood Apartments for one year. Gonzalez is currently unemployed after briefly holding a job remodeling apartments, he said.

Yohandri Gonzáles is interviewed at his home in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Jesus Suarez left Venezuela for similar reasons and took a similar route to the U.S. He entered the country at El Paso, Texas, where he was processed by border authorities and given government documents allowing him to board a plane in San Antonio to Salt Lake City, he said.

“It’s a very difficult experience and dangerous,” Suarez said in Spanish, describing long days of walking through jungle and having to change his mode of transportation depending on which country they were in. “Mostly we walked. We walked so much.”

Suarez said he came to Herriman because he has friends who live here and they recommended it. He has also struggled to find work, saying it is difficult to find employment without a more concrete resident status.

Finding the right balance

Mailyn Ortega’s story diverged from her neighbors. She came to Utah with her husband and her seven-year-old son when she was pregnant with her daughter one year ago. Her sister, who has lived in Herriman for three years with official asylum status, filled out paper work to bring her to the country through Biden’s expanded humanitarian parole program. Ortega flew from Venezuela to Utah.

Ortega said she has felt welcomed by the Herriman community and has “not met one person that has treated me badly.” But Ortega said she understands why some would want to restrict immigration into the United States.

Mailyn Ortega is interviewed at her home with her daughter in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

“Unfortunately, a lot of good people come in but also a lot of people that don’t want to do good come in and it’s not right,” Ortega said in Spanish. “There have to be some kinds of limits.”

David Sorenson, who is politically unaffiliated, said he was surprised to experience a bit of “culture shock” as one of “a handful of people that even speak English in this 590 unit complex” upon moving to Copperwood Apartments a year ago. But he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.


“I appreciate having them as neighbors,” said Sorenson, the father of three boys who he says are often outside playing with the children from other apartments. “I’d say that the benefit of having them here is worth the cost, whatever it is. Having that quality and caliber of people in our community is important.”

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David Sorensen is interviewed at his home in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Still prepping the baseball diamond for his kid’s Thursday practice, Berbert recognizes both the costs and the benefits of increased immigration he’s seen as an engaged community member. His children, attending Herriman High School, Copper Mountain Middle and Bastian Elementary, have seen a wave of new English-speakers join their classes. He’s grown used to communicating with parents through their children on the baseball team who speak more English.

The fact is that Herriman is “a melting pot,” Berbert said. And while he is “all about the need to come in legally,” once a migrant arrives in his city, he believes the obligation is clear.

“Then from there, it just needs to be a way that the community can embrace them,” Berbert said. “Because not all communities do.”

Chris Berbert is interviewed at the Main Street Park in Herriman, on Thursday June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
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