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(Scott Sommerdorf l The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, (R, Orem), presents his opening remarks about his immigration bill at Thanksgiving Point, Friday, 1/21/2011.
Stephen Sandstrom: From immigration hard-liner to compassionate conservative

Immigration » A face-to-face meeting with one undocumented immigrant was the catalyst to his conversion.

First Published May 05 2012 05:20 pm • Last Updated Aug 28 2012 11:32 pm

The changing heart of Stephen Sandstrom hinged on meeting a teenager named Sara.

It was the summer of 2011 and the Orem Republican lawmaker had just finished a panel discussion on illegal immigration at a West Valley City school auditorium, where he was defending a hard-line approach.

At a glance

The Utah Compact

» Seeks federal solutions and urges state leaders to adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants in Utah

» Says local police should focus on criminals, not civil violations of federal code

» Opposes policies that separate families

» Affirms Utah respects economic contributions of immigrants

» Asks for a humane approach to the issue

Sandstrom’s HB497

Originally modeled after Arizona’s SB1070 law, the law requires local police to check the legal status of suspects in a felony or Class A misdemeanor arrest. It provides local police the discretion to check for legal status on Class B or C misdemeanors. The law is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

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Sandstrom, who tended to stay late after public events to meet with people one on one, was approached afterward by a 19-year-old with long, dark hair. She began to tell him her story. He later said he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

Sara told him she was brought from Mexico without immigration papers at age 3. From the moment she was old enough, she attended school in Utah and graduated from high school with a high grade point average. And then, after being handed a diploma, she stared straight into a dead-end future.

No documents. No Social Security number. Almost no opportunity.

"I was just panicked inside for her. Can you imagine? I put myself in her shoes and how horrible that feeling would be," Sandstrom said. "I remember she told me how she used to place her hand over her heart saying the Pledge of Allegiance. ‘I love America. I am an American,’ she told me. I thought about it and, for all intents and purposes, she is."

So the man who had cozied up to anti-illegal-immigration firebrand Russell Pearce, blasted The Utah Compact’s push for a compassionate approach as disingenuous and had become Utah’s face for a strict enforcement-only approach suddenly found himself looking into the eyes of despair.

And Sandstrom blinked.

Hard-line » In March 2010, Sandstrom appeared at Phoenix Rising — an anti-illegal-immigration rally in the Arizona capital that featured a host of high-profile immigration restrictionists, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and the keynote speaker, Pearce.


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When Sandstrom spoke that day, he gave thanks to "my good friend Senator Pearce" and then told the crowd that SB1070 was coming to Utah — calling it the "exact" same bill.

"Arizona, you have inspired us," he said. "You have woken up the people of Utah."

He ended his speech with his voice rising above a crescendo of approving cheers. "We have room but for one loyalty, and that’s to the American people and the citizens of the United States of America — not to illegal aliens."

Sandstrom also met with an attorney representing the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a nonprofit organization that’s been in a fight for years with the Southern Poverty Law Center after being labeled a "hate group" and counters those claims by saying it’s a smear campaign.

Michael Clara, who became chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly, saw all of these pieces moving Utah into the same camp as Arizona that summer and feared the worst for the upcoming immigration fight.

"I told [Sandstrom] he was a bigot," Clara said.

So did others. Sandstrom launched his bill publicly at the Utah Capitol in August of that year, but failed to account for a horde of protesters who overwhelmed him with signs saying he was racist.

Arturo Morales-Llan, a Mexican immigrant from Orem who was watching news accounts of Sandstrom encircled and alone amid the jeers, wrote an email to his state senator, Republican Margaret Dayton. She forwarded it to Sandstrom.

"My respect goes out to him for doing the right thing in front of a very hostile crowd," Morales-Llan wrote at the time. "It took an incredible amount of guts, courage and valor to do what he did, and I applaud his actions."

Morales-Llan said the lawmaker called him and said Sandstrom had cried. Morales-Llan vowed he’d back Sandstrom in his fight against illegal immigration and soon appeared at a series of panels, debates and hearings in support of the lawmaker.

He also joined Sandstrom in his ire over The Utah Compact, a document signed in November 2010 by politicians and religious and business leaders seeking to tone down the heated rhetoric created by SB1070. When the LDS Church weighed in with a statement of support on the compact, Sandstrom publicly charged the statement was aimed directly at him and called its compassionate approach deceptive because it didn’t use the term "illegal immigration."

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