Opinion: Why Utah has better options for immigration

Americans hold two core beliefs about immigration: the necessity of a secure border is undisputed, and the historical contribution of immigrants to our nation is invaluable. Despite this consensus, federal legislative efforts have repeatedly fallen short of marrying these principles into successful legislation.

Utah, in contrast, has found great success in managing immigration for its betterment. Last year, the state expanded in-state tuition for refugees and asylum-seekers. Utah has also been a leader in occupational licensing reform for immigrants — making it easier for those with foreign training to earn certifications for trades and professions. Both of these measures will help new Americans participate and succeed in Utah’s economic future. 

The Utah way on immigration is laid out in the Utah Compact on Immigration. The compact, adopted in 2010 by a mix of business, political and civil leaders in Utah, lays out a simple set of principles to guide immigration policy. It emphasizes the need for federal action to smooth immigration processes, the importance of law enforcement, the foundational value of families, the contribution of immigrants to the state’s economy, as well as the role of welcoming stances in assimilating immigrants into our American society. In 2019, a group of Utah’s leaders reaffirmed the compact. 

To be clear, it’s inaccurate to think of Utah’s approach as middle of the road. This is not a place where averaging the two extremes in policy is of much use. Instead, the country and Utah need both a secure border and access to the world’s talents. That implies a variety of tools — walls with guards and guiding lights along the legal paths.

This is why efforts, like those embodied in Congress’s HR2, will always fall short. This federal proposal recently gained some news coverage in Utah because of a bill in the state legislature. Yet HR2’s sole attention to building physical walls and paper barriers misses that the recipe for a secure border includes these ingredients alongside new legal pathways into the country. 

The enforcement-only strategy fails to recognize that robust border security and thoughtful immigration reform are complementary, not conflicting, objectives. Creating and expanding legal pathways for immigration is not merely a gesture of compassion. Instead, it is a strategic component of a comprehensive border security framework.

That’s why other federal proposals, like the Dignity Act, for instance, represent a more promising solution. This proposal includes not just $35 billion for border security, but the creation of legal pathways for immigrants. This legislation underscores the principle that effective border security encompasses more than physical barriers; it requires a holistic strategy that includes fostering legal immigration.

Research findings are clear that our immigration strategy can’t just be building walls. This is the core advice from Victor M. Manjarrez, a seasoned former Border Patrol agent turned academic. As Manjarrez explains, a system without accessible legal pathways blurs the distinction between individuals seeking a better life and those posing genuine security threats. So a core benefit of pairing legal pathways and border security investments is that it unmasks those who are actual risks to public safety.

Doing the unmasking means taking a few policy steps. We need to hire additional Border Patrol agents, build barriers where they make sense and create guest worker pathways. Each of these reinforces the effectiveness of the others.

In the past, Utah exemplified this style of immigration management. About a decade ago, the state passed a guest worker program to bring needed workers to the state. The U.S. Congress failed to do its part to make it a reality. Today, Gov. Spencer Cox has made similar requests to the federal government, and Rep. John Curtis proposed a federal state-based visa program that would give states more abilities to bring in needed workers. 

Utah’s leaders can continue leading by example on immigration, championing policies that align with the values and needs of its people and the broader American ethos. By advocating for reforms that simultaneously secure our borders and honor our history as a nation of immigrants, Utah can pave the way for a more effective approach to immigration policy.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.