A pledge by Utah lawmakers to enact an Arizona-like illegal immigration law creates a battlefield not just with immigrants, but also between the Legislature and Salt Lake City.
After all, Police Chief Chris Burbank — with Mayor Ralph Becker’s blessing — excoriates the Grand Canyon State measure as “evil” and “racial profiling.” Before Congress last month, he accused a conservative cadre of Utah legislators of using “racist rhetoric” to enact an “obvious xenophobic agenda.” Invited back to Washington last week, Burbank called President Barack Obama’s immigration address “spot on,” adding that overzealous state leaders don’t share the sanctity of civil rights.
Both Burbank and Becker have since been assailed by angry calls and hundreds of e-mails from residents across Utah and beyond. Many of the e-mails, obtained through an open-records request, call for the chief to be fired. Others fear Utah’s capital becoming a “sanctuary city.” And scores, using racist rhetoric, question why the city’s top cop sounds like a progressive politician. Relatively few praise Burbank’s “courage.”
Utah lawmakers in the influential Patrick Henry Caucus intend to push a tough immigration bill when the Legislature convenes in January. But even though the governor agrees Utah needs immigration reform, Burbank insists police should play no part in enforcement that he considers tantamount to profiling.
“We’re going to be viewed as the racist arm of government,” says Burbank, who grew up playing squash with Mexicans, Pakistanis and Muslims. “It’s just wrong.”
Suddenly, his public reservations threaten to end the newfound peace between Utah’s most-populous city and the state. And the ramifications could extend beyond politics to the pocketbook. It’s one thing to aggravate the right-reaching residents of Sandy, South Jordan and Grantsville. It’s quite another to offend the Legislature’s GOP leaders.
“Anytime you start throwing spears with inflammatory names, it does create problems,” warns House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, who would like to see Becker rein in his police chief.
“If the mayor is not stepping up and speaking out [against Burbank],” Clark says, “I would take that as a passive sanction.”
Becker downplays the confrontational tone, saying the “broken set” of federal immigration policies spurs highly charged emotions. “There are people who react in ways that are probably inappropriate in their nastiness,” the mayor says. “But we see this around the country. It is not unique to Utah.”
Burbank notes about a third of his city’s population is Latino and would be “subject to inappropriate police scrutiny” under an Arizona-like law. He finds the criticism he faces disheartening because illegal immigration is a civil violation of federal law and has nothing to do with criminal activity. The vitriol “is motivated by racial prejudice.”