As Trump pushes wall, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox seeks ways to make Latinos feel welcome in Utah

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox listens as Justin Lee, director of the elections, discusses votes cast and turnout by each county along with fellow members of the state board of canvassers, Nov. 26, 2018, in the Utah Capitol boardroom.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wants Latinos to feel welcome in Utah — and stressed that Tuesday before President Donald Trump’s national address pushing for a wall on the Mexican border, a fight at the center of the continued partial government shutdown.

It was the same day that the Utah Multicultural Affairs Commission, which Cox co-chairs, met. And he made a point of telling its members from many races and nationalities that he will step up efforts to calm tensions with Latinos.

“It is a really toxic atmosphere right now,” he told them. “Regardless of how you feel about walls or no wall, the tone of what is being said out there certainly is not helpful for the members of the Latino community who are living here and who are so important to the state.”

He added, “We, the governor and I, are trying to elevate that discussion and the conversation here, and help people know that we’re glad they are here. We want them to feel welcome here. And even more than that, we want them to participate in the government, those who are here legally and can do that.”

Cox said he has scheduled a meeting with the Mexican consul in Utah to discuss how the state can help bridge gaps with Latinos — something the lieutenant governor sought because of a recent attack that hospitalized a Latino father and son who operate a Salt Lake City tire shop.

The attacker said such things as “I’m here to kill a Mexican” and “I f---ing hate Mexicans” as he struck them. The victims’ family blames at least some of the motivation for the slurs and attacks on comments by Trump.

(Photo courtesy of Veronica Lopez) Pictured is Luis Gustavo Lopez, 18, who was attacked at Lopez Tires on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

That attack “resonates with the Latino community,” Cox said in an interview. “That’s not who we are as Utahns. We care about human beings.”

Even “those who are here legally often feel they are outsiders, like they are a different community. The American way historically has always been to gather in a melting pot. It’s a blending of those cultures.”

Cox, who lived in Mexico for two years as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he knows and loves many people from there. “When we get to know each other and understand each other, we realize we’re not that different.”

He said he is not encouraging illegal immigration.

“We care about border security as well. We want people to come legally and be here," he said. “But we also want those who are here [without documents] not to be persecuted.”

Multicultural Commission member Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a Latina Democrat who just retired from the Legislature, said, “Having him say that at the commission gave me comfort,” and it sent a needed message to other Utah Latinos on a difficult day.

“Whenever there is a lot of vitriol, hateful speech or disconcerting intention on the part of others, Utah really tries to reflect on its own history of being welcoming. It reinforces that. I’m glad he asserted that,” she said. “I think it will come off as genuine and sincere to Latinos.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck asks a question about the inland port, in the House of Representatives, during a special session at the Utah Capitol, Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

Part of the discussion Tuesday at the Multicultural Commission focused on how to encourage more Latinos and other people of color to apply to the more than 400 state boards and commissions — which, Cox lamented, often lack diversity.

“We can do better, and we are committed to doing better,” Cox told members.

He said improving diversity on the boards — to bring in more points of view — is important enough that the state should perhaps consider people without the usually desired qualifications, but who can still do the job.

“After all, I’ve been faking it my whole life,” Cox joked.

The commission also had long discussions about how to increase diversity in the state workforce — including offering scholarships to minority high school students and paid internships to attract them to fields that now have little diversity.

“We want to improve that relationship [with Latinos] any way we can,” Cox said.

More than 1 in 5 Utahns — 21.5 percent to be exact — is now a minority, up 2 percentage points since 2010. West Valley City, Utah’s second largest municipality, was Utah’s first large city to become “minority majority" in which minorities outnumber whites.

Latinos are Utah’s largest minority. They now make up 14 percent of the state population, about 434,000 people.