Utah immigrant advocates blast anti-illegal immigration talk as 'fearmongering,' 'dehumanizing'

Eva López Chávez talks about her hopes and vision in Salt Lake City on Dec. 13, 2023, ahead of her inauguration last January as a Salt Lake City Council member.

Eva López Chávez talks about her hopes and vision in Salt Lake City on Dec. 13, 2023, ahead of her inauguration last January as a Salt Lake City Council member. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Listening to the fierce ongoing debate about illegal immigration and frequently harsh talk about undocumented immigrants hits close to home for Eva López Chávez.

"It's a personal story to me because I was born from an undocumented immigrant, and I know the contributions of my family personally," said López Chávez, a new member of the Salt Lake City Council. "I'll tell you this — without those workers, you wouldn't have food on the table, and that's my family's background in farm work and labor."

Across the nation and Utah, calls are growing from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for more steps to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern border with Mexico. Parallel to that, the tone of the political conversation, chiefly from the right, has grown particularly hard against undocumented immigrants themselves.

In a press conference late last month, Gov. Spencer Cox lamented the "dysfunctional" federal response to the border issue, saying it might necessitate a harder stance at the state level against undocumented immigrants. He was referencing a measure he signed into law in March, HB165, that Rep. Trevor Lee, its author, sees as a potential precursor to Texas-style legislation authorizing Utah law enforcement officials to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

"If we have people in our custody and ICE isn't willing to take them and deport them, then I guess ... the states are going to have to do that," Cox said.

Former President Donald Trump, vying again for the top office, has offered harsh talk in the context of killings and other crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. "The Democrats say, 'Please don't call them animals. They're humans.' I said, 'No, they're not humans, they're not humans, they're animals,'" Trump, a Republican, said at a rally earlier this month in Michigan, according to Reuters.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks on the first day of the general legislative session in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 16.
House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks on the first day of the general legislative session in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 16. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Such strong talk notwithstanding, others, like López Chávez and Utah Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, say the issue is more nuanced than suggested by those offering the stronger talk. They view the toughest talk coming from the right as the weaponization of the issue for political gain.

"I've been really disappointed with the tone people have taken toward undocumented immigrants," said Romero, also the president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. She particularly laments "people being dehumanized that are searching for better opportunities for their families."

Lack of control at the U.S.-Mexico border, Romero said, has been an ongoing issue under both Democratic and Republican administrations that needs to be fixed by U.S. lawmakers. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, could do more to get control of the border, she said. But she also noted what some view as a capitulation by congressional GOPers to Trump on a border fix that had seemingly had bipartisan backing before the former president blasted it and support fizzled.

"So again, we're not looking for a solution. From my perspective, we're looking at scapegoating people and dehumanizing them for political gain, which I think is ridiculous," Romero charged.

López Chávez sees "fearmongering" from the harshest critics in the immigration debate and instead puts the focus on the contributions of immigrants, undocumented or otherwise. Both she and Romero noted immigrants' historic role in the nation's growth while López Chávez said a key element of the discussion should center on "how to protect these families that have the right to seek asylum" and incorporate them into the state.

"I'm interested in building community, and I know those immigrants are, too. They're interested in joining our communities," López Chávez said. Her parents, originally from Mexico, "were able to move up and get proper documentation. I mean, for many of us, that is our story."

Central in the immigration debate, apart from the significant uptick in numbers of people trying to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States, has been the impact undocumented immigrants have in the communities where they settle. Critics point to the costs of educating undocumented children in public schools, their use of public services, the medical and other benefits the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants can tap and more. They also note the violent crimes committed by some, like the February killing in Georgia of Laken Riley in which a Venezuelan national, Jose Antonio Ibarra, who had crossed illegally into the United States, is charged.

Incidents like Riley's killing, immigrant advocates counter, are anomalies, not reflective of how the vast majority of immigrants in the United States, regardless of their migratory status, live their day-to-day lives. Beyond that, they say, undocumented immigrants play a vital role in the labor force and contribute significantly to the U.S. economy.

"Truthfully, as an immigrant, I can say that we do many things that benefit this country," said Oscar Correa, host of a program on La Ley 107.1 FM, a Spanish-language Salt Lake City radio station. "The people here who are undocumented are hard-working people, people who come here to better their families."

Immigrants were key pillar of the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many others worked from home, he said, and they play a key role in Utah's vibrant construction industry. Correa, originally from Colombia, addresses current events and more during his radio program, frequently interviewing members of the Latino and immigrant communities and meeting with them at events hosted by La Ley.

"They're people who aren't asking the government for any benefits, only that it let them work," he said. "I think Utah commerce of late has grown a lot, and Hispanics, immigrants have a lot to do with that."

'We've done a lot of good things'

As the debate has evolved in the state, some politicos, like Republican gubernatorial challenger Phil Lyman, have charged that Utah is "a sanctuary state," essentially soft on undocumented immigrants. Cox, for one, has rebuked the contention.

López Chávez, asked about the label, said, instead, that Utah is a place where "family values" dominate.

"Because of that, we are welcoming to families. Regardless of the title you put on it, again, we are a state that has always valued that and valued empowering individuals and their families to seek opportunities. ... That has paved our success economically as a state."

Correa said the immigration debate has caused squirming among some in the community. Regardless, immigrants are also cognizant that they add to the country.

"We feel a little bit of uncertainty. But at the same time, we are also conscious that we've done a lot of good things all this time we've been in the United States," he said.

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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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