After contentious debate, Salt Lake County Council calls on Congress to reform immigration

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Newly-elected Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, second from left, speaks after taking the oath of office on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2019, during the Salt Lake County Council's work session meeting. Left to right are Ann Granato, Ghorbani, Arlyn Bradshaw, Richard Snelgrove, Max Burdick, and Aimee Winder Newton.

In the face of federal gridlock, the Salt Lake County Council is calling on Utah’s mostly conservative six-member congressional delegation to push a number of immigration reforms it says would reflect its own commitments to immigrants.

The resolution, which replaced a version originally sponsored by Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, received unanimous approval Tuesday following a spirited and sometimes contentious debate among the partisan council and only after members compromised on several changes recommended by Councilman Steve DeBry.

Much of the debate centered around whether the council should welcome and encourage only immigrants who had come to the country legally.

“That’s the crux of it for me,” said DeBry, a Republican who works as police chief for the Unified Police Department’s Millcreek precinct and noted his constitutional duty to uphold the law.

But Ghorbani, a Democrat whose father immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1980, said she felt the proposed language was “too restrictive.”

“I’m concerned when we put language like ‘legal’ in front of ‘work’ that we’re ignoring the really harsh reality of what people are facing when it comes to navigating what it means to work here legally,” she said. “So it’s part of the brokenness of our system and I think it’s disingenuous to our community — to the immigrant community — when we say things like that without taking full realization of what it means to be legal in that context.”

The council ultimately unanimously decided to remove the language around legality, though it kept some of DeBry’s other additions, including support for stronger border security and sufficient resources for the U.S. Border Patrol.

The resolution also asks the federal government to correct and halt family separation policies; increase the number of H-2B visas, which provide a legal avenue for immigrants to work in the United States; and address the uncertainty facing those who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.

Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove spoke in support of DeBry’s amendments, which he said acknowledged the best interests of all Salt Lake County residents.

“If we truly care about fairness for our constituents, we would be advocating for a 100 percent secure border and low tolerance on illegal immigration and support more legal immigration, thereby giving our constituents more opportunity to succeed and prosper. Steve’s substitute motion addresses this and I support it. It’s in the best interest of the people of Salt Lake County, legal or not.”

During a public comment portion of the meeting, nine county residents spoke on the resolution as proposed by Ghorbani, including several representing community organizations. All spoke in favor of the proposal, and several explicitly urged the council not to delineate between legal and undocumented residents.

One of those was 18-year-old Guillermo Ramos, who received his green card two months ago.

“I have a job here, I just graduated high school here and I am going to the University of Utah this fall,” he said. “I cannot describe my eagerness to continue working hard and give whatever I can to this amazing community, and I am certain that every other person who is undocumented feels the same way — which is why I feel we deserve at least to be acknowledged by our representatives here today.”

Ramos told The Salt Lake Tribune that his mother is an American citizen but that his father is from Mexico.

Luis Garza, the executive director of Comunidades Unidas, said he was mostly pleased with the resolution the council had passed, which he sees as an important way to recognize the economic and societal contributions of all “new Americans” in Utah.

It could also make a difference in building trust with underserved communities moving into the 2020 census, since undocumented immigrants who fear responding might lead to deportation are one of the toughest groups to count.

“In this current immigration climate, I think that’s an important message to send — especially with the census coming up,” said Lauren Simpson, a policy director with the government watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah. “I think now is the important time for communities to be doing that groundwork, securing the trust of residents in order to ensure everyone is counted in the 2020 census.”

The resolution comes at a time when immigration has become a partisan flashpoint amid President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts curb the influx of refugees and immigrants seeking asylum.

But deep-red Utah has long been welcoming to immigrants, possibly because the state is home to a majority of residents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith’s early members faced discrimination and were driven from state to state until settling in the Salt Lake Valley.

Salt Lake County leaders — including former Mayor Ben McAdams, who now serves as the state’s only Democratic member of Congress — have criticized the federal government for its inaction on immigration issues and have worked to implement policies that support inclusivity.

The county became the first in the United States to be officially certified by Welcoming America, a national organization that promotes diverse communities. And last year, McAdams established a new program called United for Citizenship, which has worked to naturalize the more than 22,000 eligible residents in Salt Lake County.

County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who was elected earlier this year to replace McAdams, said Tuesday that she wanted to continue that legacy under her administration.

“I reject a lot of the rhetoric coming out often of the White House, harmful rhetoric,” she said. “Many of us have stood up in previous resolutions and at other times asking for a more compassionate voice at the federal level. We should demand that at the state level, the federal level, and we should act properly at the local level."

The conversation on Tuesday comes just months after the council declined in March to reaffirm its commitment as a group to the Utah Compact, a five-principle document originally signed in 2010 that emphasizes the humane treatment of immigrants, keeping families together and focusing deportation on serious criminals.

While most of the council members expressed support for the document — and some, like Ghorbani, advocated going even further — DeBry said he would vote against it, citing his own firsthand experiences as police chief and the document’s failure to differentiate between legal and illegal immigration.

“In law enforcement, I see the drugs and the carnage and the mules and the sex trafficking and everything else from illegal immigration or illegal aliens coming nto our country,” he said. “It has to stop. I believe in legal, lawful immigrants. That’s what the United States of America is about.”

The council ultimately decided to allow each council member to sign on to the compact individually, if he or she wished.

DeBry’s comments, republished in a news release sent out by the Alliance for a Better Utah on Monday, were a major talking point for DeBry at the meeting Tuesday, where he said he had been taken out of context and stressed his support for immigrant communities.

“I uphold the law,” he said, "but I do it humanely and I do it with empathy and sympathy and I do it with humanity. And I’ve never discriminated or done anything unethical. Or in fact, to the contrary, I’ve done more than most would.”