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by Haya el Nasser
Monday, Sep. 25, 2006 at 12:33 PM
Hmmm.... Utah allows the undocumented to drive legally with a "driving privilege card." I bet that would be useful for Americans who don't have the required ID to get a drivers license
Immigrants find a warm welcome in Mormon Utah
SALT LAKE CITY - In the shadow of the Mormon faith's majestic headquarters, the fountain at the center of the Gateway Plaza outdoor mall is a popular backdrop for weddings. On a scorching day, Hispanic and Anglo children run side by side through the pulsating sprays of water.
Marriage and kids: They're the pillars of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which dominates many facets of life in Utah. But diversity?
Immigration is changing the complexion of communities across the United States. As it sweeps through Utah, traditionally one of the least diverse and most conservative states in the nation, its impact is particularly dramatic. About 98 percent White until 1970, Utah is becoming a mini-melting pot.
While conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are pushing to tighten borders and make illegal immigrants felons, factors unique to Utah are attracting Hispanics to this reddest of red states. Among them: the Mormon Church's philosophy of outreach and its embrace of large families.
These influences have helped give the state a reputation of being warm and welcoming to immigrants. Utah allows the undocumented to drive legally with a "driving privilege card." They can attend public colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition. Minorities, mostly Hispanics, make up 16.5 percent of the population, up from 8.8 percent in 1990. They could reach 20 percent by 2010. Hispanics are driving the growth among minorities here. The state's Black and Asian populations also are growing, but slowly.
The changes are visible, and audible. Sounds of up to 70 languages reverberate in some school hallways, cantinas are sprouting in the suburbs, and Spanish-speaking religious congregations are multiplying - scenes that are more Los Angeles and Miami than Salt Lake City.
"Word has gotten out that it's a place where immigrants are welcome," five-term Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon says.
Utahans in 2004 gave President Bush his biggest margin over Democrat John Kerry - 72 percent to 26 percent. Why is one of America's most conservative places so receptive to immigrants?
"The LDS faith believes you can be conservative and yet be compassionate," says Marco Diaz, past chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly, which tries to attract more Hispanics to the party. "Help thy neighbor and love thy neighbor and still try to be fiscal conservatives."
How long Utah will embrace this philosophy remains to be seen. Frustrations are mounting over rising dropout rates and classrooms crammed with non-English speakers. Pressure to cut benefits to undocumented residents and crack down on employers who hire them is growing. About 100,000 of Utah's foreign-born, about half, are here illegally, says Pamela Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah.
Diaz says time may be running out on the state's welcome mat.
"Never have we seen so much uproar on immigration," Diaz says. "A lot of Utahans want some change. ... There's a feeling from constituents that something needs to be done. Local legislators are getting the heat."
Utah has been overwhelmingly Mormon since Brigham Young and thousands of followers settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s after fleeing persecution in Illinois. Utah remains mostly Mormon, about 62 percent, but that share of the population is declining.
The state ranks 34th in population at 2.5 million, about the size of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. It's insular, yet cosmopolitan.
Utah boasts one of the highest rates of adult residents who have passports and speak more than one language. Brigham Young University teaches more advanced foreign-language courses than any other U.S. university. About 85 percent of its seniors speak a second language.
That's the Mormon influence.
"This is a missionizing church," says Jan Shipps, a scholar of Mormonism at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. At age 18 or 19, Mormons "receive a call to go on a mission and spend two years at their own expense making converts." If they accept the call, they learn a foreign language and go abroad for two years.
"They experience another culture," she says. "That tends to make Utah out there in the middle of the West a very cosmopolitan place."
Two forces at play are causing some tension in Utah and within the church, says Kathryn Daynes, a BYU history professor. "Latter-day Saints ... want to reach out on an individual level but politically, they're very conservative."
Family values and the church's worldwide proselytizing and mission work in Latin America have attracted immigrants and potential converts to Utah. The church offers English classes throughout the state. It has held dinners for Hispanic leaders and has 114 Spanish-speaking congregations in Utah.
Church leaders generally have avoided commenting on the immigration debate and declined to be interviewed for this story.
They reacted in May, however, to comments by CNN commentator Lou Dobbs, an outspoken advocate of strict enforcement of immigration laws, on the eve of Mexico President Vicente Fox's visit to Utah and other states. Dobbs said the Mormon Church "has a vigorous enthusiasm for as many of Mexico's citizens as they possibly could attract to the state of Utah, irrespective of the cost to taxpayers."
The church's Web site called Dobbs' statement unfounded. It said the church has more than 1 million members in Mexico and owns nearly 1,000 buildings there but "does not encourage them to move to Utah or anywhere else."
Immigration has struck a nerve this year in Utah. When up to 25,000 people marched in a pro-immigration rally here in April, "I think it frightened people," says Maria Garciaz, executive director of Salt Lake Neighborhood Housing Services, a non-profit group that finances and builds affordable housing on the increasingly diverse west side of Salt Lake City.
Incumbent Cannon, who narrowly won the Republican primary in June, says "The whole race was about immigration." His opponent was political newcomer and millionaire real estate developer John Jacob, who favored sending illegal immigrants home before giving them a chance at citizenship and punishing employers who hire them.
Cannon is far from liberal on the issue. He voted for a House bill that would make helping illegal immigrants a crime and illegal residency a felony.
But he supports President Bush's proposed guest-worker program. Cannon and Jacob are Mormon.
"It's better for America to be proud of America and not take harsh views of the world," Cannon says. "I hope Utah is one of these places where we dampen the harshness."
Immigrants didn't flock here until the late 1990s as the state began preparing to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Through much of the 1990s, non-agricultural jobs in Utah grew twice as fast as in the nation as a whole.
Construction jobs multiplied. A housing boom has created another surge. Construction jobs grew 12.4 percent in 2005 and are expected to jump 15.3 percent this year.
About two-thirds of Utah's new immigrants came from abroad and the rest from other states, mainly California.
The state's Hispanic population soared to about 270,000 in 2005, up 33.1 percent since 2000. Hispanics contributed about a quarter of the state's growth in the 1990s.
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