The Utah Compact was a declaration of five core principles to “guide Utah’s immigration discussion” — first signed by community leaders, clergy, business and law enforcement representatives in 2010 and later reaffirmed in 2019.

Those who initiated it were “concerned about the tone of Utah’s immigration discussion,” with a wary eye on hard-line legislation in other states that could lead to more family separations. Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, and one of the original Utah Compact signatories, recalls how many leaders in other states were “happy to see that a conservative state could have such a balanced approach” when the declaration first came out.

The signatories promoted these five standards as something leaders in Utah could leverage “as they address the complex challenges associated with a broken national immigration system.”

Now, nearly 14 years since it was first published, there is wide acknowledgement that the system is still broken. “It’s disappointing that it’s been years and we’ve seen very little progress with immigration reform,” Ivory says.

The Deseret News today takes a look at each of the principles in the Compact and asks several signatories and experts in the immigration field to weigh its principles against what’s happening in the country. Is there any alignment?

1. How well have federal authorities taken the lead in resolving immigration problems?

To set the stage for realistic solutions, the authors of the Utah Compact first emphasized that immigration is fundamentally a “federal policy issue between the U.S. government and other countries — not Utah and other countries” — urging the state’s congressional delegation “and others” to take the lead in “efforts to strengthen federal laws and protect our national borders.”

Amid so many complaints about federal inaction, Jen Tanner, co-founder of Tanner Immigration & Family Law in Salt Lake City, gives credit to those national leaders who have made a significant effort, especially in the Senate. “They have been talking and trying to negotiate” in a forthright way, she says.

Yet neither party can get enough votes for an agreement. And recent compromise legislation negotiated by Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, Democrat Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy, and Independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, failed to gain Congressional support. As the reason for its failure, Democrats accused former President Donald Trump of weighing in and urging Republicans not to support the agreement which sought to strengthen border security by building more border wall, hiring more Border Patrol agents, expanding detention capacity, speeding up deportation, and increasing presidential powers to enforce expulsions.

Among other things, this recent failure was indicative of the continuing difficulty lawmakers have had reaching any agreement as partisan concerns (and the ability to raise campaign money in connection with those concerns) have scuttled any effort to make progress with immigration reform.

“It only takes a few naysayers in a party not to go through with something,” says Sam Peak, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative think tank. He points to intraparty fissures and squabbling as holding up positive steps forward, since leaders want to avoid “fractures in the coalition.”

“There are factions within both the left and right that keep immigration a theatrical issue, rather than a policy issue,” Peak adds. This wasn’t always the case, several experts note — pointing to the last big attempt at bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, when Utah politicians like Orrin Hatch made progress in “trying to implement into law the principles of Utah Compact,” notes immigration lawyer Brian Tanner.

Memphis-based immigration attorney Greg Siskind points to Utah senators as being “big sponsors of comprehensive immigration reform legislation” in the past — and it’s “not a surprise Utah has that tradition,” he says.

That proposed 2013 law would have provided more law enforcement support and streamlined a process for people in the U.S. to fix their status and apply for residency — thereby keeping more families together. Yet after the law passed the Senate, U.S. House speaker John Boehner chose not to bring it up for a vote.

“Everything has gotten worse since the 2013 immigration reform failed,” Peak says, “with many decisions settled by court and executive (order).”

In recent years, it’s been decisions by local state and city leaders — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, New York City Mayor Eric Adams — which have dominated headlines, as federal action remains stymied by a combination of legislative gridlock and executive inaction.

Although the Utah Compact does acknowledge a need for “state leaders to adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants” as well, some governors have expressed concern at feeling forced to take more action because not enough is being done at the federal level. “In Florida, we will not stand idly by while the federal government abandons its lawful duties to protect our country,” said DeSantis in announcing the signing of a 2023 bill to address illegal immigration.

According to records obtained by The Texas Tribune, the state of Texas has spent more than $148 million busing more than 102,000 migrants to cities around the country since 2022 in a politically-charged effort to redistribute the burden of their care. In taking this step, Governor Abbott explained he was seeking to prevent the state from shouldering “the burdens imposed by open-border advocates in other parts of the country.”

Seemingly the only thing that national political leaders seem to agree upon in the immigration debate is that the other party is to blame. Yet Peak says “both parties are at fault, just in different ways,” highlighting a general “failure to take accountability and unwillingness to see the part they are playing in it.”

In February, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and 24 other governors signed a joint statement to express “solidarity” with Gov. Greg Abbott, stating that the Texas governor “used a clause in the Constitution that empowers states to defend themselves.” The federal-state conflict continues.

2. How well have relevant laws been followed, especially when it comes to enforcing penalties for criminal activities?

While emphasizing the importance of respect for the “rule of law,” authors of the Utah Compact also highlighted their support for “law enforcement’s professional judgment and discretion,” while encouraging resources to be focused on “criminal activities” more than “civil violations of federal code.”

“Until we know otherwise” and “find out something different,” signatory Rev. Martin Diaz, of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, told Deseret News, the Compact encourages people to consider “everyone you meet a wonderful person” and “a valuable member of society.”

In this sense, the Utah Compact is based on “good Christian principles,” the Catholic leader says — especially the idea of “respecting and loving every person.”

Brian and Jen Tanner recount how presidents dating back to the Bush years have sought to primarily focus deportation efforts on those who have committed crimes — with former President Barack Obama, for instance, encouraging prosecutorial discretion in a way that signaled to federal officials “let’s go after the criminals, and not the soccer moms.”

How much prosecutorial discretion is permitted has varied considerably under different subsequent presidential administrations, with former President Trump and President Biden disagreeing on how much discretion should be allowed (and thus how much leeway prosecutors have to focus on criminals, rather than people making positive contributions to their communities).

The numbers in recent years tell a story of different levels of discretion across immigration enforcement overall, with court deportation orders reaching a much broader group than those confronted with arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are more narrowly focused on documented crime. Out of the 1,453,035 immigration court cases so far in 2024, according to records obtained by Syracuse University, only 0.39% of them sought deportation orders based on any alleged criminal activity of the immigrant, aside from potential illegal entry.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 2023 Annual Report, by contrast, 43% of the 170,590 administrative arrests that enforcement and removal officials made were tied to criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, up from 32.5% in 2022.

3. To what degree has the preservation of families been prioritized in immigration policy and practice?

After stating that “strong families are the foundation of successful communities,” the Utah Compact specifically voices opposition to “policies that unnecessarily separate families,” along with a desire to “champion” other measures which “support families and improve the health, education and well-being of all Utah children.”

Back when public outcry took place at families being separated at the border, Utah’s congressional delegation communicated with then-President Trump, expressing how many Utahns were unhappy with family separations happening on the border.

“Families are the foundation of a successful community,” says Ze Min Xiao, President of the Center for Economic Opportunity and Belonging in Salt Lake City, suggesting that we need to “continue to remind state and federal leaders the importance of keeping families together.”

Sometimes we try to solve a problem immediately “without thinking of the long-term consequences” she said, highlighting value in “going back to the principles and asking is this aligning with them?”

According to Brian Tanner, when it comes to deportations, “we still have a lot of good people still swept up in the immigration removal system who have been here for a very long time,” including people he works with who have been in the country for decades.

Based on ICE records, 62.1% of the 38,525 held in ICE detention as of June 16, 2024 have no criminal record. And while their 2023 report emphasizes that the agency “removes more single adults than unaccompanied children or members of family units,” they acknowledge that in 2023, enforcement agents removed 17,946 members of family units to their countries of origin.

The average amount of time for immigrants living in the country illegally has also continued to rise, with two-thirds (66%) of unauthorized immigrant adults in 2017 having been in the U.S. more than 10 years according to Pew Research — an average that has risen since then.

Research by Brigham Young University assistant professor Jane Lilly López shows “that when one family member lacks legal immigration status, the entire family assumes an undocumented status, along with all the associated burdens.”

“The opposite is also true,” López tells the Deseret News. “When a family member is able to shift from living without legal status in the United States to getting legal status, the lives of the entire family improve.”

The Tanners say Biden’s new executive order on spouses of American citizens and U.S. college graduates is something that “could be really helpful in terms of family unity by avoiding the currently mandated separation of 10 years outside the US” before people are allowed to be approved for their visa.

“The families will be so much happier being together.”

Among the flashpoints is the implementation by Trump, and later removal by Biden of the “Stay in Mexico” policy. The surge in those crossing the border has become a key issue in the presidential election. According to Save the Children, “in 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received a record 128,904 unaccompanied minors, up from 122,731 in the prior year,” with the majority of these children coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

4. How well are proposed steps to improve American immigration policy prioritizing a strong economy and appreciating the role immigrants play?

The Utah Compact acknowledges “the economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers,” while arguing that the state is “best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity.” Given this, the signatories advocate for immigration policies that continue to create conditions for “a welcoming and business-friendly state.”

This welcoming signal from the past contrasts sharply with a great deal of national rhetoric today, but aligns well with many people of faith in Utah. My colleague Sam Benson recently pointed to new AEI data showing how dramatically many Latter-day Saints diverge from evangelical Protestants in their respective views on immigration. When asked if they believe that immigrants coming to the U.S. today burden local communities by using more than their share of social services, Latter-day Saints were much less likely than other religious groups to answer affirmatively.

Some of the unique “values of Salt Lake and Utah,” Catholic leader Rev. Diaz suggests, come from “the returning missionaries” which have “really shaped and made it a bigger city” (culturally) by bringing home their “cultural experience of knowing people around the world” and that “friendship back with them.”

To be clear, it’s been a diverse coalition of faith leaders across the state and nation who have advocated for political leaders to heed spiritual calls for compassion on this issue. “Someone’s who’s going to walk 1,500 miles to reach the United States, these are not slackers, these are hard workers,” Rev. Diaz adds.

In his experience, those who make this kind of “enormous effort to go into the country, learn a language, and be a part of the system” — these people most often become an important part of the “fabric of our society” and help to “hold it together.”

“It would be wonderful if they were citizens.”

Peak agrees — pointing with concern to growing cohorts on both the left and right that have become hardened against even legal immigration. “Increasing legal immigration is a part of securing the border — creating a line for people to wait, rather than rushing the border. You are creating order.”

Professor López highlights public opinion data showing that more than 80% of Americans express support for allowing immigrants living in the United States illegally the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over time.

Jen Tanner adds that efforts to withhold work permits “hurts the economy” — pointing out that when the government goes after contributing parents (for work restrictions or deportation proceedings), “you’re taking away their ability to work, and forcing their children to rely upon the safety net.”

“We need to build up the workforce and be competitive. And without immigration, we’re going to have a hard time of doing it,” Ken Ivory says — pointing out that part of the reason homes are so expensive in Utah is that labor is expensive and “there’s not enough of it.”

During the Trump administration, there was an increase in the denial rate for H-1B work visa petitions — with concerns among some that a second Trump term would usher in new restrictions. Biden has taken steps to increase access to these same visas and other work permits, yet has also increased 70% the fee a business must pay for an H-1B petition (from $460 to $780). All this complicates the immigration debate about how and who to best address people coming both legally and illegally into the country.

5. Given how integrated immigrants are across American communities, how effectively are we supporting these established families with policies that are humane and loving?

An estimated 13.8% Americans and 8.5% of Utahns identify as immigrants — with 272,134 immigrants in the state mostly hailing from Mexico, India, Venezuela, Brazil and Canada, along with approximately 8,500 refugees arriving in Utah from 53 countries since 2012.

Since immigrants are “integrated into communities across Utah” and the nation as a whole, the Utah Compact calls for the adoption of a “humane approach” acknowledging this national reality. “The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors,” the signatories declare.

What does mounting hostility in the country toward immigrants say about Americans?

“Jesus took people who were on the fringes of society, and helped them to be a part of society,” says the Rev. Diaz. “He saw them not for their disease or sin — but he saw them as people and healed them, bringing them to a fullness of life in the community.”

This Catholic leader acknowledged examples of resistance toward many groups in U.S. history, reflected in past hostilities such as, “No Chinese here, no Jews here, no Italians need apply, no Catholics here … the Latter-day Saints better get out of town fast.”

“But eventually, there’s a Chinese and Italian restaurant on every corner,” he said. “We go through these struggles, and come out better on the other side.”

This desire for a humane approach extends towards attitudes to the treatment of migrants too. When Latter-day Saints were asked if they agree with the following statement in the same 2024 AEI survey: “To stop illegal immigration, we need to make it more dangerous for migrants to cross the border, even if it means some of them might die,” only 6% of Latter-day Saints said they agreed, the lowest of any faith group surveyed.

“When people are leaving situations that are horrible, you’d run, too,” the Rev. Diaz says.

“It’s not possible for us to take every person that crosses the border,” he adds, “but because the system is so broken, we can’t figure out which ones to take and not to take.”

Continuing to advocate the Utah way on immigration

An immigrant from China who has lived in Utah since 1997 and served under three Salt Lake County mayors to help “new Americans” integrate into the state, Xiao contrasts the wave of anti-immigration laws that were coming up across the country at the time with the “remarkable document” created in Utah.


“I was so proud” said Xiao, describing how people in the state came together to lay down a “set of values that reflect who we are as a community.”

In this era of mounting divisions and anti-immigration sentiment, Xiao admits being a “little worried” — emphasizing that it’s important that we as a nation “continue to hold on to those principles we have outlined” in the Compact and expressing hope they can “stand up to those challenges ahead of us.”

While acknowledging that many people today seem unaware of these immigration principles outlined above, Jen Tanner says “we do have some politicians who do try to stay mindful of the Utah Compact,” mentioning Rep. John Curtis as someone taking seriously the Utah Compact in his continuing work.

Across a decade and a half, this historic agreement has continued to elicit wide support from a diverse set of stakeholders across the state, while being seen more broadly as an expression of Utah’s values. In an age of hardening positions nationally, there are good reasons to believe these principles could help encourage this broader conversation to move towards a better place.

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