Gov. Spencer Cox held a Latino Town Hall on Monday night — his first such event with the Latino community during his nearly two years as governor.
The event was attended by a few hundred and featured a conversation moderated by Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs Director Nubia Peña. It was translated into Spanish by two interpreters, although Cox spoke his fair share of Spanglish as well.
Drawing from presubmitted questions from the community, Peña broached several topics with the governor: education, immigration, economy, health care, housing, domestic violence and policy priorities. Cox said one of his takeaways from the topics raised by the Latino community was that "we all have the same concerns."
The governor attended seven other town halls earlier Monday but said the Latino Town Hall was the largest.
"We've been doing lots of outreach to the Latino community. We've done more outreach than any other governor in our history," Cox told reporters. "We've done virtual town halls before, (but) we hadn't done one in person. I've done advertisements in Spanish. We are constantly reaching out. I do entrevistas en español ... but we wanted to do something bigger."
He added that he hopes to hold Latino Town Halls at least once every year. Cox addressed everything from the fact that Latinos have started more businesses per capita than any other demographic in Utah during the past 10 years, to the strength of having more bilingual students.
Perhaps Cox's most widely applauded comments were his messages on immigration, including remarks specifically addressed to those who were brought to the United States illegally as children, commonly called "Dreamers."
"To our Dreamers, this is your country ... this is your home. We want you to feel safe and welcome here," Cox said to loud applause. He continued, "Utah is a special place. We care about those who are suffering and we are a welcoming community. Whether those asylees or refugees come from Afghanistan, Ukraine or Venezuela, we are here to help."
Cox said his administration is working on a number of initiatives that will benefit the Latino community, which makes up about 15% of Utah:
- Translating the driver privilege test (available for undocumented individuals) and ballots into Spanish, and making it possible to use a driving privilege card as a state ID
- Making it easier for immigrants to transfer professional credentials to continue their work in Utah
- Creating a language access plan that would make government communication available in multiple languages
- Lowering health care costs and making health care accessible to everyone
- Increasing high-density housing
- Allocating more resources for at-risk students
- Standardizing the application process for in-state tuition
- Partnering with legislators to improve domestic violence reporting, data collection, prevention and assistance
- Collaborating with other governors on pushing for immigration reform that includes securing the border and working with the State Department and others to be able to welcome asylum seekers from Venezuela and other countries.
"I know those are going to be some heavy lifts," Peña said. "But again, what we consistently see is your heart to work for real solutions."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, expressed concern about how those initiatives will fare in the Legislature.
"I know his heart is in the right place; I can't say that with everyone else," she said. "So although he was sharing all these ideas, I have major concerns about what the Legislature is going to look like this upcoming session and will the Legislature be friendly to some of the stuff we talked about here?"
Romero added that she appreciated that the governor had reached out to the Latino community before the town hall. She also noted that, unlike a similar event Cox held as lieutenant governor, Monday's town hall was not backed by a particular political party. She also pointed out the need to a non-monolithic approach to reaching out to Latinos in Utah.
"The Latina/Latino/Latinx community is diverse," she said "Many are Brazilians; they don't speak Spanish. Many are 17th or 18th generation like me and Spanish is not our first language. So when we're reaching out to Latinos and we're talking to Latinos, we have to remember that we can't message it the same (for everyone)."
One of multiple community organizations involved in putting together the event was Alianza Venezolana de Utah. The alliance's director, Jesler Molina, said the Cox administration has done a good job of reaching out and involving the Latino community.
"We understand the governor is a busy person and cannot be with us all the time, but those key advisors that he has in those key positions, again, have been really helpful," he said. "We love this. Hopefully it's not the last one and there will be a second or third one. And we look forward to it."
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros said the town hall was a great start.
"Latinos are a big majority-minority in the state, so it's important that our governor talks to us and tells us his frustrations and his plans as well and how to elevate the community," she said.