Utah, Latinos, and the Battle Over Immigration

I hope I’m not surprising any of you when I say I find Utah to have a less than favorable image within the varied constituencies of “the left.” As such a solidly “red state,” and one so heavily (conservative) religious, most see it as a predictable home for a kind of Reagan Republicanism.

Let me tell you, though, this view is not as widespread for Latinos, broadly speaking.  I know more than a  few Latinos who live or have lived in Utah and who, on the whole, like it.  This is the result of the growth of a diverse set of factors which have both created networks which facilitate Latino movement and integration, and help nurture community for Latinos once they are there.

Latinos have been present in Utah since before its establishment as a State, but they’re numbers were small until the World War II era.  Then, the Emergency Labor Program (1942), also known as the “Bracero Program,” led to the establishment of economic/labor ties between Utah capital and Mexican labor.  Still, until the latter part of the 20th century, their numbers never measured much of the overall population.

That growth has really taken off in the last few decades.  Utah, like all places in the Southwest, has undergone a measurable development process in the last generation, attracting and requiring physical laborers.  For decades the Mormons have been sending their own to parts of Latin America as members of the church do their missionary service.  This has made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the fastest growing religion in Latin America.  More brown Mormons means more Latinos making pilgrimage to Utah and, often, settling.  And in the past decade, the University system has also reached out to Latino/first-generation students, a result of their commitment to hiring Latino faculty with expertise in Latino issues.

All of this recent history makes Utah something of a microcosm of the broader Latino/immigration debate in the nation at large than it makes it an exception.  I don’t think the future of Utah on this issue is as important as California, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Florida, New York, or any other state with a longer and more profound history with immigration.  But Utah is very much a reflection of the kinds of issues states like Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, and many others are facing.

A short and yet insightful reflection of this is a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune.  It unpacks some of the ways Utah–much like the nation as a whole–is kind of schizophrenic when it comes to the issue of Latino immigration, welcoming with one hand as much as they are blocking with the other.