Lehi • The final public debate before state lawmakers consider an enforcement-only immigration bill drew more than 700 people Friday night and featured a few outbursts, a mid-debate reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and emotional testimony from a victim of identity theft.
Not surprisingly, what it didn't feature was a solution.
Instead, both sides dug their heels in each armed with emotion and numbers and clashed over Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's bill that has become a lightning rod on the hot-button issue and has largely driven the immigration debate for the past nine months.
The Orem Republican defended his bill from attacks calling it racist and an "Arizona-style" approach to the issue. Sandstrom listed several points where his bill veered away from the controversial Arizona law currently tangled up in federal court.
"We need this bill now," Sandstrom said. "It's not the ugly monster everyone has made it out to be."
The lawmaker appeared on a panel with Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration spokesman Ron Mortensen and group member Arturo Morales Llan as well as Lynnette Weed, whose 9-year-old daughter's identity was allegedly stolen by an undocumented immigrant.
Weed choked up when she talked about her daughter having "to prove who she is for the rest of her life" after her Social Security number was allegedly pilfered by an undocumented immigrant who is currently awaiting arraignment on identity theft charges.
But Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who opposes Sandstrom's bill and whose office is prosecuting the case, said budget constraints and limited manpower only allow his office to pursue "the worst of the worst." With identity theft, he said, the office's SECURE Strike Force goes after ID mills that make fake Social Security cards and driver licenses.
"We're going after the big picture," Shurtleff said. "The impact is greater."
The debate sponsored by the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Salt Lake City, focused on Sandstrom's bill. It would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws and check legal status when investigating a person suspected of committing a crime or a traffic infraction.
Sutherland President Paul Mero took issue with those who cited "the rule of law" as support for such a measure and said they "seemingly ignore the spirit of the law."
Mero used the oppressive segregation laws in the South as an example. He said the same logic that defended that practice is being applied in the current immigration debate.
"Law follows the rule. If the rule is flawed, then our laws will be flawed," Mero said.
Using a formal debating style, panelists were able to ask each side questions; responses were limited to five minutes. The crowd was quiet for the most part, with only a few catcalls and outbursts.
Morales Llan managed to unify the audience and panelists for a few moments when he asked everyone to help him honor his son's request that he recite the Pledge of Allegiance during his closing statement. The Mexican-born Morales Llan, who came to the United States in 1992 and became a citizen, choked up talking about how he still feels like he's trying to "earn" his citizenship despite going through the process legally.
"I find it outrageous it doesn't make sense that we want to reward or encourage people to come here to America illegally," he said. "It doesn't make any sense. It's an injustice."
Radio talk-show host Doug Wright, who opposes the Sandstrom bill, said Utah has an opportunity to lead the nation toward a solution on immigration reform that focuses on compassion for undocumented immigrants, not punishment.
"How can we keep them from getting deeper into the shadows?" Wright asked. "We ought to be the leader here and not the follower of Arizona."