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Posted: 7:26 PM- Some Latinos say they underestimated how fast and hard Utah lawmakers were going to push anti-illegal immigration legislation and there isn't enough Hispanic representation fighting the measures on the Hill.
"I suspect we got a little complacent," says Archie Archuleta, a Democrat and longtime activist. "We misjudged the strength of the anti-immigrant forces in the House."
But a handful of Latinos who are attending committee meetings say they're frustrated and feel like they're wasting their time because lawmakers already have their minds made up.
In at least two recent committee hearings people waiting to express concerns on immigration-related bills have been muted. Just 10 minutes was allowed for about 100 people who showed up to discuss a controversial measure to repeal in-state college tuition for eligible undocumented students. On Thursday, a committee chairman limited public input on a move to repeal Utah's driving privilege card for undocumented immigrants.
Antonella Romero Packard, a Republican, sits on the 33-member Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force, a bi-partisan volunteer group. She say it's hard for task force members to take time off from work to go to committee meetings, only to face arbitrary limits.
"They're not listening," Packard says. "Does it matter what we say?"
As of Thursday, six of seven returning immigration bills have passed through House committees, including HB241 that would repeal a law that allows eligible undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition at state universities; HB237 that would allow state law enforcement officers to perform certain functions of a U.S. immigration agent; and HB239 that would repeal Utah's driving privilege card for undocumented immigrants.
In the past few years, Latinos have been much more involved during the Legislature, from dozens of Hispanics attending committee hearings and floor debates to community members organizing rallies at the Capitol to meetings between Republican Latino and legislative bosses.
In 2005, for example, roughly 2,000 adults and children, mostly Latinos, rallied in downtown Salt Lake City to oppose the bill that repealed driver licenses for undocumented workers and replaced them with driving privilege cards.
There are an estimated 100,000 undocumented residents living in Utah.
Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah and a Democrat, co-founded the Latino task force in 2004 but no longer sits on the board. Yapias and other Latino groups are organizing their second community legislative meeting this week to inform people about the immigration-related bills.
Yapias says he's disappointed that Latino leaders and the task force aren't being more active this session. Latino Republicans need to be more visible because their political party is in control, he says.
"The Republican Assembly has been MIA from the Capitol," Yapias says. "It's a disservice and irresponsible that they're not there when these bills are being debated."
Several Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly members say they are not currently involved and referred questions to group chairman Sylvia Haro. She declined to give an interview but said in an e-mail: "As the co-founder and former co-chair of the Utah Hispanic/Latino Legislative Task Force, and as a current active member of this group, I personally feel my voice is being represented by the present leaders of this group."
Task force leaders said said they are working on building more alliances with other non-Latino community groups because undocumented immigrants are not just Hispanic. They also plan to meet with more legislators and get more people on the Hill.
"What we need now is more people saying, 'You need to stop this,' " says Philip Bernal, task force Democratic spokesman.
Now that the threat of anti-illegal immigration legislation is clear, community leaders say the Latino lobbying effort will kick into a higher gear.
"I think you're going to see a change," Archuleta says. "We were a little slow, but we'll catch up."