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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.

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When Gov. Gary Herbert signed a series of immigration reform bills in March 2011 — including a controversial guest-worker law that sought to provide legal status for those already in the state unlawfully — Sandstrom refused to attend the signing ceremony that included his own enforcement-only measure, HB497.

There was a move to draft Sandstrom, hailed by anti-illegal-immigration advocates, to run for governor and repeal the guest-worker law.

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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That’s when Morales-Llan thought he picked up on a subtle change.

"I noticed he kind of backed away," Morales-Llan said. "Shortly after that, he attempted to climb Mount Everest and went missing in action for all of the repeal effort."

That July, when Morales-Llan and other opponents of the guest-worker law appeared at the Capitol and activist Brandon Beckham labeled lawmakers "traitors" for passing it, Sandstrom never showed up, even after Morales-Llan said he told them he would be there. Morales-Llan said the "backtracking caused him to lose respect among the delegates."

"I guess his heart wasn’t in it," he said.

But Ron Mortensen, one of the state’s lead figures on opposing illegal immigration, said the change may not have been that much of a change at all.

Instead, he said, Sandstrom was simply a busy guy.

"He had a life to live," Mortensen said. "I never looked at it as he was letting us down. Immigration wasn’t his life."

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Overly harsh » Sandstrom said he looked back at his ideas on immigration and began to believe the sole focus on enforcement was poisoning the debate. His HB497 law is tied up in court, awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on SB1070. He still believes in it.

He didn’t show up to the hearing in February, though he did offer support for the law in interviews. Sandstrom, however, had already gone on record a couple of months earlier when Alabama’s enforcement-only law took effect and ripped it for being "overly harsh." Not long after that, when Pearce was facing his recall election, Sandstrom took the then-Senate president to task, saying, "We have to remember we are affecting human beings, and I think that’s where Russell got off track."

Later, when Sandstrom and Carl Wimmer — who were both friends with Pearce — ran for Utah’s 4th Congressional seat, Pearce endorsed Wimmer.

Sandstrom said his support for HB497 reflects just one aspect of his view on tackling illegal immigration. But he’s become increasingly focused on addressing the estimated 110,000 people living in Utah and approximately 11 million living in the United States without documents.

And, again, it came back to Sara.

"I think for people who are on the other side — strict enforcement and forcing them to go home on their own when they were brought here when they were 3, that is the wrong attitude to have," Sandstrom said. "I think [Sara] was one of the first who told me a story that really pulled at my heartstrings. It made me realize at that point what people are facing. It was really eye-opening."

He wishes now he had gotten contact information for Sara. And immigration activists said they didn’t have any leads on how to find her.

Sandstrom said he supports a path for children in the country who don’t have proper documentation to gain legal status. He still backs Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, but diverges sharply on his concept of self-deportation. Sandstrom said that notion wasn’t "practical," and he was quoted by the liberal website ThinkProgress as saying there needed to be a way for people to "square themselves" with the law.

"We need to look at a way to help the people that have not been criminals in this country or the people that were brought here at a young age to remain," he said.

This was shocking to Utah Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, who was one of the strongest advocates of enforcement-only and self-deportation. Oda said Sandstrom clearly has moved from where he stood two years ago.

"Part of it might’ve been his run for Congress to try and attract the Hispanic vote," Oda said. "But now having already changed his stance, how can he go back?"

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