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The debate took a sudden, personal turn. The event had focused on whether Utah should pass a tough Arizona-style enforcement law on immigration, but a man stepped to the audience mic to attack Arturo Morales-LLan who supports legislation that most Latino leaders vociferously oppose.
The critic pointed and said, "You talk about obeying the law … but you broke the law." He publicly alleged that Morales-LLan worked without legal permission when he first came to America on a student visa. Others yelled "Sí" in agreement during a recent all-Spanish debate at Salt Lake City's Northwest Middle School.
Morales-LLan who heads Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Enforcement coolly replied that he is now a U.S. citizen, so that shows immigration officials found no proof of such illegal activity that would have prevented him from obtaining it.
The exchange illustrates how Morales-LLan has become a double-edged sword as the Utah Legislature debates immigration reform.
Enforcement advocates make him a poster child for how at least some Latinos want tougher immigration law and feature him at debates and news conferences. On the other side, some depict him as a hypocrite who worked illegally himself, hired and mistreated undocumented workers, and persuaded some Latinos to use false information in mortgage applications.
Morales-LLan says he is falsely accused and also has been threatened simply because he is taking a stance that is unpopular with many Latinos. He says it is also hurting his real estate business, which had been mostly with Latinos. He says that only makes him more resolute to stay in the political fray rather than abandon it.
It also shows another raucous side of the Utah immigration debate.
"Just like Disneyland" • Morales-LLan, 45, says his passion for the United States and its laws is rooted in his childhood in Mexico City. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was forced to start working at age 7 to support himself and his family by shining shoes or bagging groceries.
Sitting in his Orem living room this week, he said that during those tough times he imagined the United States "just like Disneyland. I believed it was the Magic Kingdom a beautiful, incredible, amazing place." He dreamed of living here, but thought that was impossible.
He said a chain of events made it a reality. His father helped him find a job as a teenager that was high-paying, so he no longer scrambled on the streets. He met some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he joined the church. He belatedly went to high school and earned a degree, and went on a church mission.
He became acquainted with LDS families from Utah who helped him obtain a student visa. He lived with them in Utah while attending LDS Business College. He met his wife, Niki, a native Utahn, at a church dance. When he married her, he qualified to become a permanent legal resident and later a U.S. citizen.
He said the judge who swore him in as a citizen said, " 'Make your contribution.' I really took it as a challenge, as a duty."
He added, "When I see people coming here from any other part of the world illegally, with intention of breaking the laws and draining the system to take advantage of social services, somebody has to stand up and say enough is enough."
Morales-LLan said he decided to jump into the immigration debate when he saw Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Provo, being heckled by critics at the Capitol news conference in which he unveiled his tougher enforcement bill.
"He was standing there by himself, and was being completely hammered and blasted by all these groups," he said. "That really made me gain a lot of respect for the man."
So Morales-LLan called Sandstrom and offered to help. He organized his group of Latinos who support enforcement. He has appeared at news conferences and debates with Sandstrom, and has testified to the Legislature. He says he has enjoyed that, but not the allegations that emerged from it claiming that he has broken the laws he says he cherishes.
Allegations • Ariel Alfaro, Leonicio Lopez and Luis Vides all assert that Morales-LLan is a hypocrite because they allege he broke laws although Morales-LLan denies it. The three say they decided to come forward when they heard some of his public statements.
Alfaro said he worked with Morales-LLan at a Chuck-A-Rama when Morales-LLan was dating his future wife. "He had a student visa. It takes time to get permission to work, and then only on campus. He didn't have that," Alfaro alleged.
He adds that Morales-LLan "treated other Latinos like dirt. I think he had an image problem. He's a hypocrite."
Morales-LLan responds, "That is not proof," and "is a lie" and said he is considering suing Alfaro for slander. When asked if he worked legally at Chuck-A-Rama, Morales-LLan said, "Absolutely," and "immigration checked all my documentation when I processed my citizenship" and found no problem.
Lopez is now elderly and says his daughters were friends of Morales-LLan in Mexico (which Morales-LLan confirms). Lopez said he was in Utah in 1995 on a tourist visa which did not allow him to work legally when Morales-LLan gave him a job with a landscaping company that he then owned. He says he was treated poorly, and was paid what came out to about $2 an hour. He quit after two weeks.
"I worked about 12 hours a day. I worked hard, but his brother Fernando was the supervisor and always complained and said I wasn't moving fast enough. ... He hired an American that hardly moved, but he never yelled at him," Lopez said in Spanish.
Morales-LLan said he didn't hire Lopez, that his brother, a foreman, did. He said he did not know Lopez could not legally work. And he said he approved payments in amounts that his brother said were owed to his crew, but Arturo Morales-LLan says he takes responsibility as the company owner.
Vides says Morales-LLan, as a realtor, helped him qualify improperly for a mortgage. "I didn't have credit. He told me not to worry about it. He told me to bring a W-2 and some pay stubs and he would take care of the rest. He invented numbers." Vides said he no longer has those papers.
Vides said he qualified for a mortgage that cost nearly $1,600 a month. "I couldn't pay it. I lived there about three years" before he lost the home to foreclosure. Vides said, "He says he is an honest American. It was breaking the law what he told me to do. ... He said, 'You don't have to do anything, just sign and you get the house.' And I did."
Morales-LLan denies wrongdoing. "I was the real estate agent. I didn't do the loan," he said. "If they have any proof, bring it on."
Backlash • Besides what he says are false allegations, Morales-LLan also says he has received veiled threats of violence since entering the political debate over immigration.
" 'If I were you I would be careful,' " he says he's been warned. " 'There are people out there who are crazy. I would watch your kids, your wife, I wouldn't let them go here, there.' "
Morales-LLan denounces these threats as "baloney. It's trying to intimidate me."
Instead, Morales-LLan said, he has become more determined to stay in the political fray.
He talks about the last scene in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," when a dying Army captain who helped save Ryan tells him, " 'Earn this.' I get the same feeling. Have I earned my right to be a U.S. citizen ...? If this is the price that I have to pay, it is a small price."
As an outspoken supporter of tough immigration laws, the Utah County resident has become a polarizing figure in the Latino community. The Mexican-born Morales-LLan is now a U.S. citizen and has little sympathy for lax enforcement of the country's requirements for legal immigration.