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"The Better Angels of Our Nature"

Jason Mathis shares his personal story about his fight for immigration reform in Utah.

Jason MathisJason Mathis is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as an Immigration Reformer.

Many people were deeply concerned about the direction Utah was headed the summer of 2010. Arizona had just passed SB 1070 requiring police to question people about their immigration status and Utah seemed destined to follow the same course. Legislators were lining up to support a carbon copy of the Arizona law and polling showed support from 65 percent of the state. People were being told that compassion was a dirty word. Anyone who spoke for a rational approach was accused of supporting amnesty – and the way they said amnesty let you know that they didn’t think it was a good thing.

I always felt we could do better. The vitriol that engulfed the immigration discussions didn’t truly represent the people of my community. There is a core of decency and goodness here as there is in many other places across our country. If we could empower people with a little courage we could move the discussion to a more constructive place. Working with my colleagues at the Salt Lake Chamber we started to strategically talk about immigration in a more values-based way. We hoped to create a chorus of voices who could “appeal to the better angels of our nature.” The Utah Compact was the outgrowth of this effort.

The document is a simple and elegant rebuttal to “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” The 224 words of The Utah Compact focus on five core values:  Federal Solutions, Law Enforcement, Families, the Economy, and a Free Society. The Utah Compact was literally written by dozens of people. The original draft may have lived on my laptop, but by the time the document was released it had been edited and improved by many other voices including political officials, captains of industry, law enforcement officers and religious leaders from many faiths. Every word was thoughtfully considered and every phrase was nuanced.

A signing ceremony with community leaders was held at the Utah State Capitol on November 11, 2010. Within a few days the New York Times ran an editorial about The Utah Compact that read:

A clearer expression of good sense and sanity than Utah’s would be harder to find. It says that immigration is an issue between the federal government and other countries – “not Utah and other countries.” It says local police agencies should focus on fighting crime, “not civil violations of federal code.” Because “strong families are the foundation of successful communities” it opposes policies that unnecessarily separates them. It recognizes immigrants’ value as workers and taxpayers. It ends by urging a humane approach to the reality of immigration: “Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of good will.

The Times editorial was followed by endorsements in local and national publications including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. An editorial in the Arizona Republic urged the Copper State to follow Utah’s example. Indeed, immigration leaders in a dozen other states have since adopted similar compacts, encouraging elected leaders to adopt a reasonable approach to immigration reform in their own communities.

By the time the Utah Legislature met in January, 66 percent supported comprehensive reform – a swing of nearly 40 percent in three months. The Utah Compact was not the only force driving this sea change, but it was a clarifying moment in what was otherwise a heated and destructive conversation. By authentically speaking to core American values, The Compact holds a mirror up to immigration questions and asks us to find a better way. The resulting laws based on The Utah Compact are not perfect. But they set our community on a pragmatic path that embraces compassion and human kindness. The appeal of The Utah Compact comes from its simplicity and authenticity. It changed the trajectory of Utah’s policies and the national discussion by creating a more civil and comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

Jason Mathis is the executive director of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance and EVP of the Salt Lake Chamber.