The Faith Factor

By 2010, the spark that had been lit by Jensen at Westminster College had begun to burn brighter, as a number of civic leaders and community groups collaborated on The Utah Compact, a declaration of principles to guide the legislative process. The principles included federal solutions, respect for the rule of law, compassion for families and appreciation for economic impact. Among the signatories were two former governors, members of the clergy, mayors from both parties, business leaders and several former members of Congress. 

And perhaps most importantly, in a state in which about 60 percent of residents and about 90 percent of legislators are Mormon, the LDS Church weighed in as well. “The Church regards the declaration of The Utah Compact as a responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform,” a statement announced. “It is consistent with important principles for which we stand.” 

After being re-elected in 2010 with 85 percent of the vote—the biggest landslide of any contested legislative race in the state that year—Wright returned to the House as sponsor to a dozen bills, floor sponsor of four more and co-sponsor of yet another. Included in that thick stack of file folders was a bill he titled “The Guest Worker Program Act,” which outlined a procedure in which the Utah Department of Public Safety would issue visas to undocumented immigrants and their families. The program would work like the medical marijuana laws in California and other places, where states regulate an act that is illegal under federal law.

Wright felt deeply the plights of paperless families caught in the middle of a political impasse—those fleeing abject poverty and violence, those with the ability and will to do jobs that most Americans reject, even in tough economic times. And he felt a righteous yearning to help them. It was, he believed, what his church had taught him to do. 

Most of Utah's legislators shared his faith, but Wright knew he wouldn’t win their support in a debate over doctrine. “You can talk about compassion if you want,” he says, “but let’s just go back to common sense. How smart do you have to be to figure out that we’re not going to pick up millions and millions of people whose children were born here and send them back to Mexico? Even if everyone in the country wanted to do that, it couldn’t be done… So let’s all agree this can’t be done. The question I was trying to answer is: What do we do now?”

Of all the bills filed and fought over during the 2011 session, only one—HB 477, which infamously sought to rob citizens of the right to view millions of pages of government records—was more contentious. Wright was a co-sponsor of that bill. “People try to peg me, but I don’t think they can,” he says. “I’m not your pawn. I’m not your prostitute. And I have an obligation to tell you the way I feel.” 

The guest worker bill was numbered HB 116 and later renamed the Utah Immigration Accountability and Enforcement Art in deference to lawmakers who wanted to support it but needed semantic distance from its key provision. “I’m not a populist,” says Wright, who in the most recent session sponsored a strict abstinence-only sex education measure that won much public disapproval and a rare veto from the governor’s office. “But I’d never run into something like this. The letters I was getting were the most condemning, threatening things. For the first time in my life, when someone would drive into my yard that I didn’t recognize, I’d think, ‘Who are you and why are you here?’” 

Next>>Part 5: A Thoughtful Approach

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