Utah Is Begging for Workers Then ‘Making Them Hide in the Shadows,’ Says Senior Citizen Activist

Dee Rowland remembers when she first realized how large the Hispanic immigrant population in Utah really was. “We started having masses in Spanish, and people just came out of the woodwork,” Rowland says. “We just didn’t realize how many people were here until they started filling our churches.”

Rowland is a former government liaison for the Catholic Church in Utah. She was raised Catholic, but didn’t consider herself particularly pious. Then she learned that the current bishop had helped draft the church’s pastoral letter entitled “Economic Justice for All,” which stated that all economic decisions and institutions should be evaluated in light of whether or not they advance or undermine human dignity. She also saw that the church was involved in a number of social justice causes, and she decided to take the job.

During her 22-year career, Rowland and her colleagues promoted the church’s position on a number of issues: The abolishment of the death penalty; the creation of more affordable housing; and the need for immigration reform. “We had some wonderful demonstrations and peaceful marches to the Capitol when there were immigration bills active,” Rowland says. Wonderful — but not without controversy. “I got spit on” at one march, she says.

Rowland believes that undocumented immigrants have the right to fully participate in society and that immigrants are critical to Utah’s economy

Rowland has since retired, but she hasn’t stopped working for justice. She was instrumental in creating the Utah Citizens’ Counsel, a nonpartisan group of senior-citizen community advocates dedicated to improving public policy, and she was responsible for adding immigrants’ rights to its platform. The organization is made up of people who have retired from prominent state positions in education, business, and public policy. “The idea was to draw on the wisdom and experience” of those who’ve had long civil service careers. When the group decided to issue a statement of human rights, Rowland proposed including these: That undocumented immigrants have the right to fully participate in society; and that immigrants are critical to Utah’s economy. “Everybody agreed to that very easily,” she says.

In 2010, the Citizens’ Counsel wrote to Utah Governor Gary Herbert, urging him to “bring the full weight of state law to bear” on the state employees who had released a list of 1,300 Utah residents they suspected of being undocumented immigrants, a move that led to the termination of those state employees. The Citizens’ Counsel also signed on to the Utah Compact, which calls for the state to welcome immigrants. The group continues to work on a number of issues, and for Rowland the rights of immigrants remain a key priority.

Among other things, she feels strongly that undocumented immigrants need a path to citizenship. “There’s a great demand for construction workers here,” Rowland says. “We’re begging people to come and then making them hide in the shadows.”

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