Immigrant rights activists step up fight in Utah
by Pepe Lozano at People’s Choice on January 31, 2011
A group of young people with a group called “Cuentame” has taken the fight for immigrant rights to a whole new level. The organization, whose name means, “Tell Me a Story,” recently raised hundreds of thousands of dollars online to put up a billboard in Salt Lake City, Utah, last week that says, “God Doesn’t Discriminate, Why Should Utah?”
The tech-savvy leaders of the group call themselves social network activists and use Twitter, email, social book-marking sites and Facebook as organizing tools to educate and activate young people. “Cuentame” is an ongoing campaign that has a small staff and many volunteers who magnify immigrant rights initiatives around the country using arts, politics and culture. Also known as the Brave New Foundation’s Latino Instigators, “Cuentame” currently has more than 48,000 followers on Facebook.
Republican lawmakers dominate Utah politics. Prominent among them is State Sen. Stephen Sandstrom who is expected to introduce a copycat law similar to Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant SB 1070.
Arizona Republicans passed that bill last year granting police the authority to question people about their immigration status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that the person was undocumented. However a federal judge, acting on a lawsuit filed by the Obama administration, has stayed central provisions of the Arizona law.
Authors of the Arizona law and now the Sandstrom bill belong to the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), activists say. The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded FAIR as a hate group. “Cuentame” leaders say FAIR is indeed linked to white supremacist and nativist groups. “Cuentame” released this video exposing the connection.
Critics say the Sandstrom bill goes completely against Utah’s Social Compact, which was issued by a coalition of businesses, law enforcement bodies, churches and community groups urging state leaders to use compassion on immigration issues.
Axel Caballero, 31, co-creator of “Cuentame” hopes the anti-immigrant push in Utah doesn’t get to the point where bills are passed in the state legislature.
“It’s a matter of social justice and equality for immigrants,” he said. Bills like Arizona’s law are unconstitutional and they will be stopped, said Caballero. “They go against the basic rights of ordinary working people.”
Martha de Hoyos, 35, communications director of “Cuentame” added, “It’s not okay to racially profile an entire community. Legalizing discrimination is not acceptable.” She added, “Latinos are not going anywhere.”
As Latino voters, Hoyos and Caballero say Sandstrom and some Republicans are playing with fire on immigration and that they will pay the price politically in the long run.
According to recent Census numbers Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. They are also the fastest-growing voter bloc and are becoming more of a major political force, as shown in recent elections.
“We are a growing and strong voting bloc to contend with and anti-immigrant laws will only further alienate the Latino community,” said Caballero. Ultimately more Latinos will be less likely to vote Republican, he says.
Melodia Gutierrez is a student at the University of Utah. She’s also an activist with a Salt Lake City multi-racial and diverse coalition called United for Social Justice that has partnered with “Cuentame.”
She said there are about 20 different pieces of legislation on immigration being proposed in Utah’s state legislature. But Sandstrom’s bill has gained the most opposition, she said. Her group has led several rallies, demonstrations and forums against his bill.
She said the polarity between lawmakers like Sandstrom trying to implement anti-immigrant measures next to Latinos and immigrants that reside in Utah, is extremely vast.
“There is such a huge disconnect and it’s becoming very difficult for the undocumented community,” said Gutierrez. “Proposals targeting and criminalizing the immigrant community in Utah are creating an environment of fear and persecution.”
Meanwhile the billboard is phenomenally important especially in Utah, which is a very religious state, added Gutierrez. She hopes the billboard’s message will resonate with Utah residents and encourage compassion when it comes to the immigrant population.
“But we still need a lot more people to get involved,” said Gutierrez.
Activists say their main goal is to inform people because that leads to change and transformation. They add it’s important for voters to stay active and pressure lawmakers to listen to their needs.
Caballero said he was glad President Obama highlighted the fight for undocumented students that came to the U.S. as children and lived their whole lives here during his state of the union address last week.
“But now we want to see some action on those promises and we will be there to help guide those actions and make sure that Utah and other state’s don’t become the next Arizona,” he said.