As immigration dominated the national debate and led some states (including Arizona) to enact strict anti-immigrant laws, Utah’s Legislature, citizens, and business community were divided. It was a problem looking for a unifying voice. The Chamber provided one.
“We looked at what was actually taking place in immigration. We really felt that there’s a Utah way of doing things. ‘The Utah Way’ is really looking at the issues and addressing them,” Beattie said.
Beattie asked Jason Mathis, executive vice president for the Chamber and executive director of the Downtown Alliance, to help develop a compassionate response to immigration from Utah’s business, government and religious leaders. The Utah Compact, signed in November 2010, emphasized the need for federal solutions to immigration problems and urged law enforcement to focus on criminal activity rather than a violation of the federal civil code.
“It just encouraged Utah’s leaders to be thoughtful in an approach to immigration, and be aware of the impacts that their decisions might have on our economy, on the immigrants themselves and on the communities we want to live in,” said Mathis.
Business leaders recognized the role that immigrants played in local economies and supported free market approaches to individual freedom and opportunity. The Compact also stated families should not be unnecessarily separated because of immigration issues. Finally, the Compact called for a “humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history, and spirit of inclusion.”
“By simply and elegantly stating that — it’s 250 words — it really empowered people to do the right thing,” said Mathis.
The Chamber policy team also said they looked for a way to divert attention from “enforcement-only” legislation like Arizona passed. While some questioned its ability to pass constitutional muster, the Chamber supported the effort to help start the conversation about providing local solutions for the national immigration issue.
And the nation took notice. A New York Times editorial in December 2010 said, “Not all the political news this year involves the rise of partisan extremism and government by rage. There has been lots of that. But maybe there is a limit, a point when people of good sense and good will band together to say no; as they have just done in Utah. Political, business, law enforcement and religious leaders there have endorsed what they call the Utah Compact. It is a statement of principles meant to address, with moderation and civility, ‘the complex challenges associated with a broken national immigration system.’ What a welcome contrast it draws with the xenophobic radicalism of places like Arizona.”
As the ideals from the compassionate reform principles of the Compact have spread, at least 16 individual states have adopted similar guidelines and documents to continue the discussion about immigration. This work on the Compact took Mathis to Washington, D.C., to be honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change by President Barack Obama’s administration, along with 10 other immigration-reform activists.
“We have a community that is truly quite welcoming. And sometimes I think it doesn’t have as much to do with being on the right or left side of the political spectrum. Immigration reform isn’t about right or left politics, it’s really about just doing the right thing. And I’m proud of the things that our state has done,” Mathis said while representing the Chamber at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
While there has been little federal action on immigration, the Utah Compact made a significant contribution not just to the local debate, but across the nation.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, calls the Utah Compact the “gift that keeps on giving.” He told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2015, “It pops up in the most unlikely of places. It pops up when conservative leaders are grappling with the question of how do we engage in this debate. Whether it’s Georgia, Indiana, etc., either they have heard about the Compact, or we just point to it…We say, ‘You’re not out on a limb. This has been done, and this Utah group and the relationships remain strong.’”