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Utah has truly changed the tone and path of the national debate on immigration reform, says the head of a national immigrant advocacy group.

In fact, Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, calls the Utah Compact the "gift that keeps on giving."

The compact, signed in 2010 by church, business, law enforcement and community leaders, sought to cool debates that had grown increasingly heated. It called for humane treatment of immigrants, including seeking to keep families together and focusing deportation on serious criminals instead of those with just civil violations of immigration law.

"It pops up in the most unlikely of places," Noorani said about the compact during a visit Wednesday to Salt Lake City. "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.' "

Noorani said the red state's compact also surfaces in "liberal circles as a ray of hope that there is a constructive approach from a conservative perspective."

He noted his Washington, D.C.-based group "really started with the Utah Compact" as its model as the forum aims to engage faith, law enforcement and business leaders in an approach "that has come to be known as Bibles, badges and business for immigration reform."

Noorani added that the compact even has affected debate in Congress.

What the compact did there, he said, "was lay the foundation for a different way to have a conversation. Once you had that foundation, it was a lot easier to get to a policy debate."

Noorani does not foresee immigration reform clearing Congress anytime soon because of "hyper-polarization" on the issue. He is in Utah to talk to leaders and send a message to politicians that reform is still sought by many in the state — and the need is urgent.

He said reform may come as more people get to know immigrant neighbors "and see they are good people."

He added that ongoing litigation over President Barack Obama's orders not to deport many adults and the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign could put more focus on immigration reform.

"The 2016 election will remind Republicans that the world is a changing," he said, "and they have a real chance to take credit for fixing the system."

Utah leaders have a range of other views on the compact. Anti-illegal-immigration activists see it as a sort of disaster for their cause, while Latino activists credit it for cooling the surging hate they had seen.

Ron Mortensen, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and an activist against illegal immigration, on Wednesday called the compact "a business- driven effort to help businesses benefit from illegal immigration and avoid their responsibilities for hiring illegal immigrants."

He said it has "taken away the criminality of illegal immigration," and helped block efforts here to stop it.

On the other hand, Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, credited the compact for helping to calm a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.

"We were in the middle of a hurricane when it was signed," he said. "The Utah Compact certainly has been a big part of cooling a lot of heads around the state and country."

Between 2008 and 2012, Yapias said, he and others seemed to live at the Legislature when it was in session to fight anti-immigration efforts.

"But in the last three sessions, I haven't had to go up to the Capitol at all because there haven't been any anti-immigration bills." —

The Utah Compact

Federal solutions • Immigration is a federal policy issue between the U.S. government and other countries — not Utah and other countries. We urge Utah's congressional delegation, and others, to lead efforts to strengthen federal laws and protect our national borders. We urge state leaders to adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants in Utah.

Law enforcement • We respect the rule of law and support law enforcement's professional judgment and discretion. Local law enforcement resources should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code.

Families • Strong families are the foundation of successful communities. We oppose policies that unnecessarily separate families. We champion policies that support families and improve the health, education and well-being of all Utah children.

Economy • Utah is best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. We acknowledge the economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers. Utah's immigration policies must reaffirm our global reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.

Free society • Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah. We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill.