Cannon drums on immigration despite voters

Published September 14, 2004 12:49 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He has been accused of promoting mass immigration, terrorism and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Utah Republican Congressman Chris Cannon has paid a political price for his efforts to "fix" the nation's "broken" immigration system - not to mention mowing through 92 percent of his $472,000 campaign stash in a primary faceoff with Matt Throckmorton, an ardent advocate of immigration restrictions.

And though Cannon beat Throckmorton and is favored to glide past Democratic challenger Beau Babka to a fifth term, that alone doesn't account for his persistence as an immigration reform maverick who backs legislation apparently out of step with Utah voters - begging the question: Why?

Because "it's the right thing to do," says Cannon, who traces his immigration views to experiences as a missionary in poverty-stricken areas of Guatemala.

"America has the responsibility to bring freedom to people around the world. It's not America's gift, but God's gift to mankind," says Cannon, recalling his days as an 18-year-old proselytizing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "What I saw were wonderful people who by accident of birth lived mean lives. And because of the accident of my birth I had a prosperous life . . . the disparity was so remarkable, it affected me profoundly."

Cannon acknowledges the strain that undocumented immigrants place on state schools and health and social services.

But he says something must be done to fix the current system in which 8 million to 11 million undocumented workers live "in the shadows." He backs a slew of changes, the most controversial being his bill to give farmworkers in the country illegally a chance to become permanent legal residents so they can be monitored and better served by the government.

Undocumented immigrants pay sales and Social Security taxes and fill jobs that many Americans find undesirable, notes Cannon, who says a vote for his bill is a vote to preserve America's economy and human dignity.

But immigration restrictionists paint a less-than-altruistic picture of Cannon and his motives.

Favored to win re-election, Utah's senior congressman is more concerned about wooing Washington interests than his constituents, they say.

Cannon's "AgJobs" bill assures big business an unending supply of cheap labor, gives labor unions more workers to organize and scores points with the Bush administration, says Craig Nelsen of ProjectUSA, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting population control.

"Immigration [reform] is a side effect of corporate greed and the money they send to pad politicians' campaign accounts," says Nelsen.

To Nelsen's point, a survey of Cannon's financial disclosures since 1996 shows Washington, D.C., and out-of-state interests steadily replacing his Utah support. Eight years ago, 85 percent of the individuals backing Cannon hailed from Utah; today locals comprise just 16 percent of his donor base.

A close look at who is giving also shows a sudden jump in contributions from immigration attorneys - 23 of whom have poured $20,900 into Cannon's war chest. Most of the donations were made after the preprimary financial disclosure deadline.

At least five of the attorneys serve on the executive committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which helped Cannon draft the "AgJobs" bill. And all of them stand to benefit from a provision in the bill requiring that immigrants applying for amnesty be represented by a lawyer.

The bill also gives illegals who can't afford an attorney access to public money.

"Cannon is giving us a policy we don't want. He's receiving money for introducing it and he's allowing people profiting from it, the immigration lawyer industry, to charge the taxpayers for it," says Nelsen.

Cannon's legislation is unpopular in conservative Utah. A Salt Lake Tribune poll in May showed 71 percent of Utahns opposed or strongly opposed laws that make it easier for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state.

But Babka, Cannon's Democrat opponent, has done little to capitalize on the anti-immigration groundswell incited by Throckmorton.

Babka has attacked Cannon for being out of touch with Utah voters, and when pressed called Cannon's "AgJobs" bill "reckless and foolhardy." But the South Salt Lake police captain has yet to propose alternatives other than he would support budget and staffing increases for U.S. Customs, border protection and Homeland Security.

"I have to come down on the side of the law when it comes to prosecution and deportation as it is spelled out by the current legislation," says Babka. "But I am not unsympathetic to the desires of those people who cross the borders to escape starvation and poverty."

The question at hand, says Throckmorton, is whether Cannon's political capital is best spent on a doomed piece of legislation.

"Our campaigning forced a lot of fence-sitters in Washington to back off. Chances are this bill is dead for this year," Throckmorton says.

Cannon counters his bill is still in play and when "properly" explained, in line with the beliefs of most Utahns.

"When you push a little on opinions, people change their minds," says Cannon. "You get beyond the rhetoric of lawlessness and open borders and into the problem of how to handle immigrants already here and people are willing to reconsider their gut reactions."


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