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Utah immigrants excited about reform bill, leaders say

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., center, speaks as immigration reform legislation as outlined by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, Thursday, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 18 2013 03:59PM
Updated Apr 19, 2013 09:41AM

Tony Yapias says a taco vendor showed the excitement — and questions — that the estimated 125,000 immigrants who are in Utah illegally have about the new bipartisan immigration-reform bill just introduced in Congress.

"Are we really going to have immigration reform this time?" she asked him.

When Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, responded that he believes that it finally is real, she became more excited.

"Am I going to be able to get a work permit?" she asked. "Will I be able to visit home" in Mexico without worry about returning to the United States? Yapias said the answer to both is yes if the bill passes as drafted — and that made her, and the local immigrant community, ecstatic.

"Our first reaction is: At last!" said Archie Archuleta, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza.

Leaders of several Latino groups held a press conference Thursday at Centro Civico Mexicano to praise the new legislation and plead for Utahns to ask members of Congress to support it. They also pledged to closely watch any movements to water down provisions they say are key — and pointed to a few others they feel may be a bit severe.

"I ask that Americans step up and call all their national delegations and ask them to support this comprehensive solution to humanitarian reform laws that won’t rip families apart or send dreamers [brought to America illegally as children] to a country where they are unfamiliar," said Brandy Farmer, interim president of Centro Civico.

Utahns in Congress have concerns with the legislation — starting with Sen. Mike Lee.

An original member of the bipartisan group formed to forge the bill, Lee bowed out early because he opposed a path to citizenship for millions here illegally.

He wants a piecemeal approach in which the initial focus is on border security, modernizing the visa system and tracking individuals entering and leaving the country.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the other hand, said he wants to support the legislation and thinks it is time to finally move to resolve the illegal immigration problem.

Supporters of the bill include the Salt Lake Chamber, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the community groups that held a news conference Thursday.

"It’s a win-win for everybody. Nobody is getting 100 percent of what they wanted," Yapias said. "This is not amnesty by any means. ... It creates a difficult path to citizenship that will take up to 13 years. People will have to pay a fine. They will have to submit to a criminal background check. They will have to learn English."

Despite that, Yapias said immigrants are excited because they can stay and work — and visit home countries without needing to wait to complete the entire path to citizenship.

"Something our families have long waited for is a meaningful way for them to go home and visit their families and loved ones they haven’t seen for years," he said, adding that it could even be a boost to local airlines and the airport by increasing travel to Mexico.

Archuleta said while the bill brings immigrants hope, Latinos are cautious because the bill "is 844 pages long. That tells you there is a lot of study that needs to be done."

He said Utah Latino leaders have some concerns about the bill, including the long road to citizenship.

"Thirteen years for citizenship seems a little much," Archuleta said. "That needs to be looked at carefully."

He said requiring detainment of 90 percent of those illegally crossing borders before giving green cards through the bill’s provisions "sounds like the revival of a quota system" that can be unfair "because people are more interested in the quota than the human side."

He warned that walls promoted in the bill cannot stop illegal immigration. "The Great Wall [of China] didn’t keep the Mongols out," he said. "The wall in East Berlin didn’t keep East Berliners from going West" even knowing they could be shot.

"But the bill is very hopeful, and it’s a great beginning," Archuleta said.

"Today is a good day for immigrants in Utah," Yapias added.

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