A Utah DACA recipient has dreamed all his life of being a police officer — but state law forbids it

A new diversity bill moving through the Utah Legislature would allow noncitizens to serve in the police force.

When Enrique Sanchez was in the third grade, a police officer who volunteered at his Park City elementary school helped his family buy a pair of running shoes they couldn’t afford so he could compete in a track meet.

And from that moment on, Sanchez knew he wanted to wear a police uniform himself one day.

“To me, this is what police work is,” he told a legislative committee this week, reminiscing on the small act of kindness that set the trajectory for his life. “It’s helping your community.”

But Sanchez, now 22, has yet to make his dream a reality.

In his early teens, the son of two Mexican immigrants discovered he was undocumented. And as he prepared to graduate high school, he learned that Utah law prohibits noncitizens from serving on the police force.

“It’s very frustrating because it’s like I really had to fall in love with a career that I wasn’t going to be able to do? Of course that would happen to me,” he said with a laugh in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s just kind of the feeling I had.”

Sanchez, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), currently works as a part-time employee in the Park City Police Department while finishing a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Utah. But he’s never lost hope that he would one day wear a badge.

And his dream took one step closer to reality on Tuesday, after a Utah Senate committee gave an early vote in support of a bill that would allow noncitizens to serve as police officers so long as they are lawful permanent residents, have been in the United States for at least five years and have legal authorization to work.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City and the bill’s sponsor, noted that there are fire departments in the state that allow eligible noncitizens to work and that permanent legal residents have long been able to serve in the U.S. military.

“I had a vet call me a week ago and he said, ‘I served in the military with soldiers that weren’t citizens and I will walk them to the front of the line to be a citizen,’” Mayne told the Senate committee. “And that stirred me.”

If ultimately approved this session, SB102 would bring “more people in to be candidates” in police departments, she said. “It captures ‘Dreamers,’ refugees and those people that have come from other countries or other cultures.”

Sanchez said he was “shocked” when he learned of the bill just a few hours before he testified in support of it at the Senate committee on Tuesday. And while the proposal still faces a few legislative hurdles before it could become law, he said its unanimous approval “gives me hope.”

For a “Dreamer” like himself, “that’s all we can do is keep hoping,” he added.

(Photo courtesy Park City Police Department) Enrique Sanchez, a part-time community outreach specialist in the Park City Police Department, dreams of becoming a sworn officer but hasn't been able to make that vision a reality because of his citizenship status.

Increasing diversity

The legislative effort to expand the pool of eligible officers in Utah comes after a summer of protests spurred by frustration over the way people of color are treated by police — including the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis officer.

Proponents of this bill include local law enforcement groups that want to increase diversity among their ranks in an effort to form better connections with these communities.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican who represents West Valley, said he was “stunned” to learn that the city’s police department — which is one of the largest in Utah and serves one of the state’s most diverse communities — had only one native Spanish speaker.

“I have thought for years on how we could do a better job, how we could better do outreach,” he said. “And I would really like to commend Sen. Mayne for coming up with such a solid and wise solution.”

A spokeswoman for the West Valley Police Department estimated there were about 15 Spanish speakers in the agency but said she didn’t have any data on whether those were native speakers or people who had acquired Spanish as a second language.

West Valley Police Chief Colleen Jacobs spoke in favor of the bill Tuesday, noting that it could bring “potentially more diverse” applicants into law enforcement.

“In West Valley I am always looking to hire the very best candidates for our police department to serve our community,” she said. “Having a large pool of applicants to vet through our hiring process helps us to determine those most qualified.”

Jacobs said she was also in favor of the requirement that eligible noncitizens be in the United States for five years before they could become an officer, noting that it can be difficult to do background checks across borders and that the rule would help law enforcement agencies “piece together their moral and ethical background for that five year period” at least.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) West Valley Police Chief Colleen Jacobs, center right, holds a news conference in this April. 17, 2018, file photo. The chief is among those favoring a bill that would remove a state ban on noncitizens working as police officers.

A representative from the Utah Chiefs of Police Association also spoke in favor of the bill.

A man who gave his name as Silas Nebeker and said he was speaking on behalf of his family and friends was the only person to voice opposition to the bill during committee debate.

“We don’t have anything against diversity or immigrants, of course,” he said. “I know several legal residents that are very good people and I wouldn’t have anything against them being police officers. But I feel that our police do need to be citizens. They’re the ones that are enforcing our law and since they’re the ones enforcing the law, they need to actually be citizens.”

Thatcher said afterward that there will be some “who fail to grasp the differentiation between someone who is lawfully in the United States of America but not yet a citizen.”

“But this is good, sound policy,” he added. “This is good legislation. We should absolutely pass this and hope that the federal government, who has constitutional oversight over naturalization and citizenship, will make the process a little easier.”

Reflecting community needs

As the bill moves through the legislative process, Sanchez said its passage would be a “game changer” and would help DACA recipients like himself — who he noted are “your neighbors, your coworkers [and] your classmates” — give back to their communities.

And he agrees with local law enforcement groups that it would be a positive development for the community at large, particularly amid clashes between law enforcement and communities of color.

“I really am a true believer that our elected officials and our public service workers need to reflect our communities. Many times they don’t,” he said. “I think that once we have representation in all offices and all buildings and such, we are going to be able to make better decisions as a community and truly be able to live and call each other neighbors.”

The community in Park City, where Sanchez hopes to someday serve, is around 25% Spanish-speaking, according to Police Capt. Phil Kirk, who bought Sanchez his running shoes all those years ago and is supportive of Mayne’s bill.

“If we’re really going to truly reflect the needs and the composition of all of our communities, we need to do the best we can to provide that kind of diversity within our workforce, too,” Kirk said.

Sanchez has already helped the police department form deeper relationships among minorities in Park City through his role as a bilingual community outreach specialist, said Kirk. He’s also been a “key part” of an effort to create a youth explorer cadet program in Park City and has served as a “perfect role model” for many young kids.

“All the young kids really look up to [Sanchez] from that program,” Kirk said. “Some of them want to become just like him. So he’s kind of breaking that barrier hopefully and again, kind of sets the tone for a lot of these kids.”

As the bill moves forward, Sanchez said he hopes it will pass not only so he can fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a police officer but also because there might be a student “who’s in elementary school right now who might want to be a police officer and is in the same shoes that I was.”

“I hope that they don’t have this roadblock once they got to high school and find out their [citizenship] status and that they can’t do their dream job because of this,” he said.

SB102 is currently awaiting consideration in the full Senate.