Utah lawmakers pursue resolutions to honor Salvadorans, Pacific Islanders and refugees

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, talks about HB261 Equal Opportunity Initiatives in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 24. She is sponsoring a measure to honor native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in Utah, SJR9.

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, talks about HB261 Equal Opportunity Initiatives in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 24. She is sponsoring a measure to honor native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in Utah, SJR9. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Three resolutions meant to honor some of the newcomers and ethnic and racial minorities in the state, including Salvadorans and Pacific Islanders, are winding through the Utah Legislature.

Even as debate rages about the influx of undocumented immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting alarm and handwringing among many, two of the resolutions are mustering support. The third, HCR10, honoring Utah's sizable Salvadoran population, awaits a committee hearing.

The three measures, meant as messages of welcome and support, entail no spending.

"They do wonderful things for our state and our community," said Rep. Judy Rohner, the HCR10 sponsor, alluding to Utah's Salvadoran community. "I am really proud of these people and that they love our state, and they love the community they're in."

Nearly 13,600 Salvadorans or Salvadoran-Americans live in Utah, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates as of 2021, though the Salvadoran Consulate in Salt Lake City estimates the number is around 20,000. The Salvadoran community is the second-largest Latino group in Utah — trailing the much-larger Mexican and Mexican-American community — and the third-largest Hispanic population in the United States.

Many Salvadorans "emigrated seeking peace and security, fleeing the aftermath of a civil war, gang violence and a series of natural disasters dating back to the early 1970s," reads HCR10. Many have established homes, it goes on, while others serve as legal temporary farmworkers each year "to alleviate labor shortages in the state's agricultural sector."

Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City, talks during a press conference outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 1, 2022. She is sponsoring a resolution in the 2024 session to honor the state's Salvadoran population, HCR10.
Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City, talks during a press conference outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 1, 2022. She is sponsoring a resolution in the 2024 session to honor the state's Salvadoran population, HCR10. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, is sponsor of SJR9, a resolution to honor Utah's community of native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The measure passed the Senate in a 22-0 vote on its second reading last Friday and awaits consideration on third reading, scheduled for Friday.

The community's roots in Utah date to the 1870s when native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders came to help The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with temple construction, Kwan said. The native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population, including those who report having two or more races, totaled more than 59,000 as of 2020, according to estimates from the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

"They are just a vibrant and loving community," Kwan said.

Verona Mauga, of Taylorsville, and a member of the community, addressed the measure when it went before the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee on Jan. 26. The Pacific Islander community — including long-time Utah residents, recent migrants and "climate refugees" — has a legacy of contributing to the state, she said.

"But we also face socioeconomic challenges and other issues. My hope is that this resolution will not only serve as an acknowledgment of the contributions and legacy of the native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, but also as a commitment to always be mindful of the disparities within our communities," said Mauga, a Democratic candidate for the District 31 seat in the Utah House.

A 'history of welcoming refugees'

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, is a sponsor of HCR9, celebrating the state's "history of welcoming refugees" fleeing persecution. The Utah House approved the measure Monday on first reading in a 70-0 vote, and it now goes to the Senate.

Johnson alluded to the arrival of Mormon pioneers in what is now Utah starting in the mid-1800s, saying the state "became a haven for those seeking religious freedom and an escape from persecution." More recently, the state has welcomed refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine and now more than 100 languages are spoken across the state, he said, representing the diversity of newcomers here.

Johnson stressed that refugees are rigorously vetted before they are allowed to enter the United States, and they "are here legally," making an apparent contrast to undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States via the southern border.

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a measure, HCR4, declaring June 20 as World Refugee Day. It entails no spending but calls on lawmakers and the governor to commit to aiding and expanding refugee resettlement initiatives, among other things.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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