Conservative Phoenix Suburb Considers Utah's More Lenient Take On Immigration
March 29, 2011

MESA, ARIZ. - Mesa, Arizona is home to State Senator Russell Pearce, prominent sponsor of the state’s controversial SB 1070, which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop. (Note: That portion of the law is currently enjoined.) Mesa is also home to a substantial Mormon population, and the main Mormon temple in Arizona, and like many other cities in Arizona, Mesa opposed SB 1070. As the bill is held up in the courts, the city is now looking at alternatives, including a possible endorsement of a more lenient approach to immigration: The Utah Compact.

At a recent advisory board meeting in Mesa, Board Member Denise Heap faced a crowded room of riled-up citizens and explained to them the appeal of the Utah Compact – a set of principles on immigration that’s more about living alongside undocumented people than deporting them. It was developed by business, political, and religious leaders in Utah, and later endorsed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“A year ago, we noticed as a board that there was an atmosphere of hostility developing in our community,” Heap said. “We noticed over the past year an increase in reported, documented, substantiated hate crimes in the city of Mesa.”

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Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Arizona.

This meeting was convened to discuss Utah’s compact, but it was so packed with public comments that the board tabled the issue, saying they needed to consult with lawyers. Many residents raised legal threats about endorsing the compact. Talmage Pearce of Mesa told the advisory board that “sanctuary city policies, according to SB 1070, [are] illegal” and that “even if the Utah Compact was a good idea, it would be a bad idea for Mesa.” (He also listed a number of fines Mesa would be subject to should it adopt policies in line with the Utah Compact.)

His comments were met with thunderous applause, high fives, and whistles from others in the audience, some of them wearing t-shirts with fireworks sparkling in red, white, and blue. The ones who didn’t cheer got their chance at the microphone, too.

“The Utah Compact,” said another Mesa resident, “does not set law, it does not supersede law, it does not change law – it simply sets the tone, the tenor of the conversation.

This conversation is something Mayor Scott Smith laments has been lost in Arizona over the past few years. Immigration has become a contentious debate. However, outside the meeting, Smith made it clear that Arizona is not Utah.

“We’re a year or two ahead of Utah in the evolution of immigration debate because our problems are so pronounced here,” Smith said. “So that’s why we’re not the same as Utah. And that’s why you can’t just simply take what any state does and plug it in here – but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what others do.”

Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh is in favor of learning from Utah’s example. He says that Mesa’s endorsement would make an important statement.

“We’re sending a message both to state and federal lawmakers that immigration is an important issue to our communities,” he said. “We want you to deal with it in a rational way, not a divisive way, and when you deal with it, we think you should keep these principles in mind.”

In the absence of federal action on the issue of immigration reform, it appears left in the hands of states, like Utah, or cities, like Mesa, to make policy; or, to at least make statements about policy.

“Like with a lot of things, the city is where the rubber hits the road,” Smith said. “That’s where people live. That’s where the drop houses are. That’s where the day laborers stand on the corners. It’s the cities that are faced with the day to the day challenge of how to interact with the immigrant community, and how do you deal with a problem that is a federal issue, but affects communities.”

Legally, cities are allowed to endorse any policy they choose to, as endorsement does not mean enforcement. Mesa’s advisory board will meet again to discuss the compact next month.