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Utah’s Ambivalent Policy Toward Integrating Immigrants


This essay by Kenneth P. Jameson was first published by the Russell Sage Foundation as is reprinted here with permission. In 2008, the Foundation awarded funds from its immigration program to Jameson, Melissa Goldsmith, Claudio Holzner, Kim Korinek, Thomas Maloney, Julie Stewart, and Ming Wen. The scholars used data from the Utah Population Database (UPDB) to study the social, economic, and political integration of immigrants in Utah, a non-traditional gateway destination.

Utah ranked sixth among states in the percent increase of foreign born during the 1990s – 174 percent – making it a “new immigrant destination.” The rate of increase slowed after 2000 but was double the national rate, resulting in 8.3 percent of the state’s population being foreign born. Over half of them were from Latin America, predominantly Mexico, and an estimated 101,000 of the 226,000 foreign born are undocumented. Since the state’s foreign born population was only 3.4 percent in 1990, immigration policy quickly became a major concern.

In 2011 the Utah Legislature passed an enforcement only immigration law, described as “Arizona Light,” which was quickly challenged in court by the ACLU. On the other hand, it also passed a proposal for a guest worker program to be run by the state. The federal government has signaled that it is likely to challenge this program. These seemingly contradictory steps evidence not only the difficulty in formulating coherent state policy in this arena, but also the continued evolution of Utah’s stance toward the challenge of integrating immigrants into a New Destination.

Utah policy at the end of the 1990’s was quite accommodating, even to the undocumented. In 1999 they were allowed to obtain driver licenses using an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) rather than a Social Security number. Undocumented high school graduates have been allowed to pay in-state tuition at Utah institutions of higher education since 2002, consistent with the aspirations of the national DREAM Act. Over the decade, however, policy has hardened. For example, in 2005, the driver license became a “driving privilege card (DPC)” that could not be used for other identification purposes. Every year sees legislative proposals to repeal both of these programs.  However, the legislative inconsistency in 2011 may actually signal a loss of momentum for policies that discourage immigrant integration. There are two likely reasons for this. First the continued willingness of immigrants, including the undocumented, to play by the rules they are given and to actively seek integration. Second, influential business, civil, and religious leaders came together to adopt the “Utah Compact” that created a different narrative about immigrants and their status in Utah. We can look at them in turn.

Measuring Immigrant Integration

A Russell Sage Foundation grant has allowed our University of Utah research group to study immigrant integration in Utah since 1999. The DPC allowed us to look at specific aspects of the 55,603 undocumented who held a DPC in 2009. We are not aware of any other studies that have been able to directly research such a significant share of a state’s undocumented population. The general conclusion is that they actively pursue the avenues of integration afforded them. For example, we estimate that 71 percent of undocumented adults have DPC’s, even though that specifically identifies their status. State audits indicate that 76 percent of DPC holders have auto insurance, compared with 81 percent of all drivers. Also the number of undocumented students receiving in-state tuition at the University of Utah has grown from 13 in 2003 to 134 in 2010.

The several empirical studies by our group also illustrate the integration of the immigrants, including the undocumented. We found evidence of socio-economic mobility of the undocumented. These immigrants were able to move into better neighborhoods over time (as measured by median income, poverty, unemployment, and education at the block group level). However, they remained highly residentially segregated, which has negative ramifications.  Our immigrant health studies suggest that the epidemiological paradox held for both legal and undocumented foreign born mothers, whose odds ratios of having a low birth weight was lower than all US born mothers. This was although undocumented mothers were more likely to receive inadequate prenatal care than their documented counterparts and U.S. born Latinas, particularly if they had not integrated by obtaining a driving document. The paradox also held when obesity was examined, with foreign born Latinos and Latinas having lower incidence of obesity than their US-born counterparts and US-born whites. The importance of integration was underlined by the finding that the risks of obesity increase with Latino residential isolation.

Immigrant integration is ultimately a political process, and since 1999 immigrants have used political actions to foster integration. This was despite the increasingly hostile legislative atmosphere. There was only one immigration bill passed by the legislature in 1999, but by 2008 there were 30 such bills considered, and the general tone of virtually all the bills was antagonistic to undocumented immigrants.

Political Integration

A positive counter to this hostility has been the political activity on the part of legal and undocumented immigrants, which appears to have increased in tandem with anti-immigrant legislation. Between 1999 and 2008 there were 32 protests with an estimated 74,500 people participating, peaking in 2006 when more than 30,000 pro-immigrant supporters – including thousands of undocumented immigrants — turned out for the state’s largest-ever protest march. The final determination of policy toward immigrants will be through the ballot box, and we found that turnout among foreign born Latinos has increased over the last decade, even though overall turnout rates in the state have declined. In examining this process more closely, we found that the likelihood a naturalized immigrant from Mexico voted in the 2008 presidential election more than doubled if they also voted in the previous local election. Thus, to the extent that Utah’s bi-polar immigration policy draws immigrants into local politics, it will create a new voting bloc that will make its voice heard in 2012.

So the positive efforts of immigrants, documented and undocumented, was one factor in softening the anti-immigrant actions of the legislature in 2011.

The Utah Compact

In addition, the policy debate on immigration took a very interesting turn in Utah in 2011. A new narrative on immigration and immigrants became a central factor in the debate, countering the “what part of illegal don’t you understand” narrative. This was the Utah Compact, adopted by a coalition of religious groups, business people, and respected politicians. It suggested five principles to guide the state’s debate: immigration policy is a federal responsibility; law enforcement should concentrate on criminal activity, not civil violations of federal code; policies that unnecessarily separate families should be opposed; Utah’s immigration policies should reflect its welcoming and business friendly atmosphere; and immigrants are integrated into Utah communities and therefore should be treated humanely. The Compact has been taken up by other states and it contributed to blunting the most extreme anti-immigrant tendencies of the Utah legislature.

We have noted the exceptional efforts of immigrants to integrate with the wider Utah society and the generally positive performance of documented and undocumented immigrants found in our research. Since next year brings elections for Utah’s House of Representatives and a portion of its Senate, it remains to be seen whether immigrant behavior and political involvement, along with the power of the narrative in the Utah Compact, can continue to offset the political capital to be gained through an anti-immigrant stance.

Kenneth P. Jameson is professor of economics at the University of Utah.  His research interests focus on the political economy of Latin America, particularly Ecuador and Peru, and on immigration into Utah and immigrant integration processes.