SALT LAKE CITY — The hyper-politicized debate around immigration reform touched down on the local level in Utah on Tuesday.
Though the debate at times became heated and tense, ultimately both Democrats and Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council found compromise after debating a formal document to urge both federal action and compassion for immigrants experiencing family separation.
The council unanimously passed a resolution to urge "immediate" federal action to fix the nation's "broken" immigration laws to prevent "the unnecessary separation of families."
The resolution differs from one originally sponsored by County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, a Democrat, which included stronger language to "reject the aggressive and insensitive forced separation of children from their parents at our borders and inside our state."
Ghorbani — who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year before winning a seat on the council — clashed with Councilman Steve DeBry, a Republican, when he brought forward his own version of the resolution, one that had a high likelihood of overriding Ghorbani's version given the Salt Lake County Council is controlled by a slight Republican majority.
DeBry's version weakened Ghorbani's resolution, which stated the council would "reject the aggressive and insensitive forced separation of children from their parents at our borders and inside our state and are unwilling to be complicit in the practice of family separation that is damaging to our children."
Instead, DeBry's version stated the council "opposes any policies that unnecessarily separate children from their parents" but also "recognizes the traumatic effect that such actions may have on children."
DeBry, who is also the police chief of the Unified Police Department's Millcreek precinct, said he proposed the changes because he was caught in a dilemma — one that put his duties as a policeman who has sworn to uphold the law and his "sympathy and empathy for the downtrodden" at odds.
"I uphold the law, but I do it humanely and I do it with empathy and sympathy, and I do it with humanity," DeBry said.
DeBry's original version included wording to state the council supports immigrants coming into the country "via legal means" — wording that frustrated Ghorbani, who called it "too restrictive."
Ghorbani said that those words to some families would mean asking them to go back to a country they don't call home and "getting in a line that could be eight, 10 years."
"We're ignoring the really harsh reality of what people are facing when it comes to navigating what it means to work here legally," she said. "It's disingenuous to our community — to the immigrant community — when we say things like that without taking full realization of what it means to be legal in that context."
Ghorbani, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, also fought to remove wording in DeBry's version calling to strengthen border security "sufficient to halt illegal border crossings."
DeBry at first said he wouldn't be willing to amend the word "legal," calling it the "crux" of his dilemma. But DeBry eventually agreed to amend the resolution to address Ghorbani's concerns.
"My heart's there with yours," DeBry said. "But you also have to realize the dilemma (we're) in as a community and a country."
DeBry became heated when addressing a press release previously issued by Alliance for a Better Utah, which criticized DeBry's "no" vote in March to reaffirm the Utah Compact, a document to support immigrants. At the time, DeBry said he did not support the document because it didn't differentiate between "legal and illegal" immigrants.
“In law enforcement, I see the drugs, the carnage, the mules, the sex trafficking and everything else from illegal immigration or illegal aliens coming into our country. It has to stop,” DeBry said in March — a comment Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, called "vulgar, anti-immigrant rhetoric" that shared attitudes that "damage our communities by perpetuating false ideas about who immigrants are and why they have chosen to make Utah their home."
DeBry fired back at Alliance for a Better Utah, accusing the group of taking his words "out of context."
"That's not what I'm about," DeBry said. "I do not have a prejudiced bone in my body."
We're ignoring the really harsh reality of what people are facing when it comes to navigating what it means to work here legally. It's disingenuous to our community — to the immigrant community — when we say things like that without taking full realization of what it means to be legal in that context.
–County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani
Still, in his line of work, DeBry said Tuesday he's "seen the heroin smugglers, sex traffickers" and "illegal people who have murdered people" and that's why he's a supporter of legal immigration.
Simpson doubled down on her criticism of DeBry on Tuesday.
"We were surprised to see Councilmember DeBry react so defensively after we called him out for his anti-immigrant rhetoric," she said. "As a good government watchdog, it is our job to bring to light comments made by elected officials during official meetings. He made many alarming comments today in a similar vein to his previous comments."
As DeBry and Ghorbani clashed, one Democrat, longtime County Councilman Jim Bradley, called on them to work out their differences.
When they did, Bradley applauded them.
"This is the way it ought to work," he said. "Very good. Proud of you all."
Salt Lake County provides many services for refugees — and in 2018 became the first county in the nation to be officially certified by Welcoming America, which advocates for diverse communities.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she intends to continue support of past mayors for immigration- and refugee-friendly programs — especially during a time of what she called "harmful" rhetoric under President Donald Trump's administration.
"I reject a lot of the rhetoric often coming out of the White House," Wilson said, calling for a more "compassionate voice" nationally.
"We should demand that at the state level, the federal level, and we should act properly at the local level," she said.