(Photo: AP/The New Mexican, Natalie Guillen)
The very red state of Utah surprised quite a few people this week when Republican Governor Gary Herbert signed into laws immigration bills considered liberal.
Among the most controversial moves was allowing illegal immigrants to obtain legal residency through a two-year guest worker permit if a background check concludes the applicant has committed no serious crimes. But applicants that entered the country illegally would need to pay a fine of up to $2,500 for the worker pass.
Under this new policy, which can only take effect if the Obama administration gives the green light, illegal immigrants would be recognized by Utah as legal residents even though other states would still consider them illegal. The Utah government is trying to negotiate with the Obama administration to allow employers in the state to hire illegal immigrants – a federal crime, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"Utah did the right thing. We did the hard thing," Gov. Herbert, who signed the bills on Tuesday, stated on his website. "Today I challenge our federal delegation and those who work alongside them in Washington, D.C.: It is time to get off the sidelines and have a meaningful dialogue about immigration in this country."
Another important policy change in Utah is softening an Arizona law that allows law enforcement officers to question people's legal residency status. In Arizona, police can ask for verification of a person's legal status if he or she breaks even the most minor rules, including jaywalking. But under the new Utah law, police can only question someone's legal status if the person commits a felony or serious crime.
The new immigration laws in Utah reflect a document called the "Utah Compact" – supported by Utah businesses, the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, civic groups, and the Mormon Church – which calls for immigration policies that care for the family and is compassionate. It also calls for using law enforcement officers to fight crimes rather than illegal immigrants.
Utah's more progressive immigration laws despite its highly Republican voting base can be explained by the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and local businesses. Mormons, who make up about 60 percent of the population, are mostly sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants having come in contact with many people from different cultures during their mandatory missionary stints.
And Utah businesses have seen how Arizona's harsh immigration laws have had a detrimental effect on the state's economy, with businesses protesting against the tough laws by canceling conferences and conventions in the state.
Given the intense pressure against Arizona's hardline immigration policies, a bill that would deny U.S. citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants failed to pass on Thursday. Several Republican state senators voted against the bill.
The issue of illegal immigration has become a hot topic among evangelicals, with a growing number moving to the side that supports a comprehensive immigration reform policy that would provide a pathway for undocumented immigrants already in the country to gain legal status.
The National Association of Evangelicals, the nation's largest evangelical body, issued its most comprehensive resolution on immigration in 2009 that calls for a boost in work visas and a way for illegal immigrants to become legal residents.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative Protestant denominations in the country, supports comprehensive immigration reform because its members recognize that while securing the border and making illegal immigrants pay a penalty are necessary, there also needs to be a compassionate approach for those who come only to work and provide for their family.
Evangelical leaders have highlighted in their reasoning that illegal immigrants are also made in the image of God and deserve to be treated with respect. They also often reference verses, such as Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Exodus 22:21, about showing love and compassion to "aliens" in the land.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants that reside in the United States.