Salt Lake County’s inland port: Helpful or harmful for the Latinx community?

Story and photos by KATHERINE ROGERS

Elitzer stood in the doorway of Franklin Elementary School’s gym on Feb. 28.
That evening, the gym hosted a panel about the proposed inland port that is to be built in Salt Lake County. She was watching the proceedings, but not participating in the questioning.

“I wish they would do something in Spanish,” says Elitzer, who asked that her last name not be used. She speaks English well, but it’s not her first language. Spanish is much more comfortable for her.

She is just one of many Latinx people who live near where the inland port is proposed to be built but know very little about it — even though this port could affect them the most, for better or for worse.

The proposed site heavily overlaps with Utah House District 23. This district belongs to Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. It also has the highest Latinx population in the state, with 47 percent of the district identifying as Hispanic or Latino, according to the demographic profile of the district.

An inland port is essentially a dry port. It is a place for trucks, planes and trains to meet to exchange and deliver cargo. In the age of online shopping and one-day shipping, a junction like this is helpful.

In the 2018 legislative session, the state passed a bill that would provide funding for an inland port to be built in northern Utah. This inland port is to be built in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake County, west of Interstate 215 and on both sides of Interstate 80. The area is just north of 2700 South and creeps toward the Great Salt Lake. This would put the port near Salt Lake International Airport and the Union Pacific Rail line, according to the boundary map.

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Trucks driving down 5600 West, just south of Interstate 80, where the Inland Port is proposed to go.

In the most recent development in this story, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski just filed a lawsuit against the Inland Port Authority (IPA).

Hollins has concerns about the port. She worries that increased truck, plane and train traffic could mean worse air quality.

Questions about how transparent the IPA has been in this process have come up. It has held many meetings that are closed to the public. Hollins says she doesn’t feel like the IPA has been listening to the public like it should.

The state representative does recognize there is good that could come from the port.

A provision has been provided in the Inland Port Bill that requires part of the funding for the project to go toward affordable housing.

The inland port also, of course, could provide potential job growth for the nearby communities, including House District 23.

According to the demographic profile, Hollins’ district has many people who work in construction and the service industry. This port could create more jobs in those areas.

Thomas Wadsworth, director of corporate growth and business development for the governor’s office, reported at the meeting on Feb. 28, that there are incentives in place that would encourage businesses to provide wages at least 110 percent of the average wage in that industry in Salt Lake County.

 

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R.C. Willey and Dematic warehouses along 5300 West, near the proposed location.

 

However, Hollins expresses that she is concerned about how good those jobs will be. An incentive is not a guarantee. And even if these jobs provide livable wages, there is no promise that there will be room for the employees to grow and move up in the company.

The question that Hollins asks for the good of her constituents is, “Do the economic benefits outweigh the ecological problems?”

The IPA is aware that not everyone supports the port. Envision Utah, a group dedicated to helping Utah grow in a healthy way, has been hired to run public meetings and report back how people are feeling.

These meetings have been well attended. But most of the attendees at the Feb. 28 meeting were white. Even though the neighborhoods closest to the port are heavily Latinx, few of those residents are seen at this meeting.

Elitzer, the Latina woman who was there that night, said this was the first meeting about the inland port that she had attended.

She had heard about it through Hollins when Elitzer had taken a trip to the capitol with her West Side Leadership Institute class. Before that, she didn’t know about the port. Hearing about it now alarmed her.

She has a daughter who is asthmatic. She said she wants her daughter to be able to play outside and run around with the other kids. Utah already struggles with poor air quality. Increased air pollution could keep Elitzer’s little girl from being able to do that.

The potential for worse air quality near their home makes Elitzer worry, not just for her daughter, but for other children as well.

She had recently been to Primary Children’s Hospital and seeing all those children who have similar afflictions as her daughter broke her heart. “They shouldn’t have to live like that,” she said.

It was pointed out during the meeting that the inland port could provide job growth for the community. Elizter just shook her head. “We can get other jobs, in a healthy way,” she said.

Elitzer wants to make a difference in her community. Learning about this port is part of that. She plans to share this information with her friends, family and neighbors. She thinks that they need to know.

She believes that this inland port project is just focused on money. She said she also feels that the IPA does not care about what the people nearest the project think. If it did, Elitzer points out, wouldn’t it have provided some information in Spanish?

Latinx populations help the US economy to thrive

Story and photo by ZANE LAW

In recent years, with the presidency change and promises of a wall between bordering lands, southern immigrants have been the hot point of numerous conversations. While some argue that immigrants hurt the United States economy by stealing jobs and not paying taxes, other credible folks think just the opposite of the situation.

In regard to stealing jobs from American-born individuals, Alex Guzman says the community members create their own jobs and support each other as a collective Latinx whole. Being the CEO of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Guzman knows the working-class population and estimates that as many as 35,000 Hispanic individuals own businesses in Utah.

Whether documented or not, Guzman says they open businesses “not to be entrepreneurs, but to survive.” Those who cannot find jobs due to the lack of a social security number, discrimination, little education, and other reasons are able to open businesses and provide for their expanding families. These business owners are then able to pay it back to fellow immigrants by offering new jobs and opportunities to thousands of other people in similar situations.

While the community creates jobs for themselves and others by having a high number of business owners, another overlooked aspect of immigrant workers is the fact that they are willing to do whatever it takes to provide.

According to a talk at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, immigrants are more willing to move for work than native folk. Giovanni Peri explains that “immigrants’ willingness to move helps slow wage decline in stagnant regions and contributes to economic growth in booming ones.” They move away from regions that do not have enough jobs, allowing the locals to take the few available spots. Immigrants then move to bustling areas, with high demands for work, and are able to fill the positions that owners want to be filled, Peri says.

Alejandro Gutierrez, a Mexican-born man of 45, did just that. He originally moved to a town in California, but as the job market began to fill up, he found his way to Salt Lake City. Gutierrez now works as a dishwasher at the University of Utah’s Peterson Heritage Center, pays his taxes, and adds money to the economy.

While Guzman, Gutierrez, and others within the Latinx community create jobs and work hard for their money, Guzman says that the community also contributes plenty of money to the churning economic machine.

“We live la vida loca and we put our money in the market right away,” explains the enthusiastic business owner, marketing professional, and former Guatemalan senator. “La vida loca” translates to “the crazy life” and Guzman says this is the case for many Latinx individuals. They buy the foods they want, upgrade their cars, party and vacation frequently, and live carefree lives.

Guzman says the community finds it difficult to save, but he sees this as a learning experience for youth. He further backs up his lifestyle choices by saying the “spending helps to inspire a sense of generating income.” The philosophy is that when their kids see what money can bring and how much it costs to live well, they are more driven to earn for themselves.

These spending habits stretch further than the immigrants who Guzman has come to know in Utah, however. Anna Chavarria, a student in Colombia, explains that she and her family have difficulties with saving as well. The family of six lives in a three-bedroom home in Medellin, Colombia, but they enjoy things like motorcycles, fine dining, and huge block parties.

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Anna Chavarria enjoys “la vida loca” in the sand dunes of Huacachina, Peru.

Chavarria says in a phone interview they would not cut the extravagance out for a more spacious house, explaining that they “live a fast-paced and fun life, and a squished home simply adds to the closeness of our family.” Both her mom and brother work seven days a week to provide such a life and she says she and her family would work just as hard if they lived in America. Chavarria has been in the Visa application process for approximately two years and says she has much to offer to the U.S.

Because Latinx community members often spend as fast as they earn, Guzman says the Latinx community is a major target for marketing as well. With his 25 years of experience in the field, he has found that the return on investment for this group is large.

Spanish-speaking outlets like Telemundo are greatly cheaper to advertise on than English-speaking sources. Then once the advertisements have done their job, Guzman also says Latinx people are very loyal to the brands they buy from. Companies are able to advertise their brands for less money, keep their customers for longer periods of time, and have peace of mind knowing the community will spend for as long as a paycheck is coming in.

The state of Utah and the country as a whole are filled with people similar to the likes of Alex Guzman, Alejandro Gutierrez, and the Chavarria family. According to a June 2018 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Latinx population even makes up at least 14 percent of the state’s residents. They are not an anomaly and are a community that will, no matter what, contribute to and affect the economy.

Mass incarceration, health disparities, the achievement gap: Is the Utah governor’s Multicultural Commission helping?

Story and photos by MEGAN CHRISTINE

“What is the concern, what is being done about it, and what can we do?”

Jacqueline Thompson, a member of the governor’s Multicultural Commission, said this was the commission’s approach to issues facing minorities in Utah.

The commission’s goals are to promote inclusiveness, cultivate trust between state government and ethnic communities, and improve educational resources regarding equity for the state.

The Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs and the commission was created in 2012 when Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed an executive order.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former member of the Utah State House of Representatives and current commissioner, said the commission “continues in some ways to be a little bit of a controversial existence because the development of it is grounded in some controversy.”

Before 2012, there was the Department of Community and Culture, which employed a director of ethnic affairs. This department had oversight of the African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander affair offices. Each office had employees who were responsible for listening and responding to the needs of its respective community.

When the commission was created, this department and its individual offices were disbanded. The Department of Heritage and Arts now oversees the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Multicultural Commission.

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The Rio Grande building in Salt Lake City, home of the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts.

Chavez-Houck noted that the commission was developed in the middle of an economic recession when the executive branch was looking for places to cut. Some members of the community were against the elimination of the department and individual offices.

The commission is expected to listen to the needs of the community while also fulfilling the expectations of the governor. Chavez-Houck said that “sometimes it feels overwhelming that we’re trying to bring the voice of communities upward to the executive branch at the same time we’re trying to carry forward the executive branch’s priorities to the communities we represent.”

Thompson said the individual offices were able to work directly with communities one-on-one and could therefore have a more widespread impact.

Thompson also noted that though the staff at the office is small and consists of only three employees, they are “phenomenal.” She said that “if they (Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs) didn’t have the personnel they had, things wouldn’t get done because the staff is so outstanding and efficient.”

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Jacqueline Thompson, a current member of the governor’s Multicultural Commission.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox serves as co-chair of the commission as appointed in the executive order by the governor. Thompson said Cox is “always thinking outside of the box” and is conscious of being inclusive of all voices.

The 25 commissioners represent a wide variety of voices, and the large majority of them are community leaders in their respective industries, whether that be government, nonprofit, or business. Chavez-Houck is a former Utah legislator. Maria Garciaz is the CEO of Neighborworks, a nonprofit organization. Thompson is a state employee with years of experience in educational equity.

Chavez-Houck said, “I still sincerely believe that there is value in consolidating issues because communities of color share a lot of common concerns.” These are things like health disparities, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, economic opportunity and development, and education and the achievement gap. “These things hit communities of color the same,” she said.

Garciaz said the commission structure is beneficial because “there’s good reciprocity. There are people on the commission who are community representatives and then you have the state department heads. There’s this exchange of information.”

Though the commission is able to have a wide impact because of the community leaders who serve on it, Garciaz noted that she would like to spread the work they do geographically. “When people hear commission, they assume they’re up on the hill (the Utah Capitol) and inaccessible,” she said. “I think we need to be able to visit other counties so that they’re aware that we’re here.”

The commission meets every two months, and the meetings are open the public. The agendas for previous meetings are available online. Recent topics of discussion include the hiring of an executive director for the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs, the role of the commission in partnership with Intermountain Healthcare regarding work on the social determinants of health, and the Multicultural Youth Leadership Day.

Commissioners listen to the issues that are presented and then respond with feedback. They work collaboratively to come up with solutions to complex issues that face our community.

Those who want to join the commission must apply and be appointed by the governor. A term can be one, two, or three years long but commissioners serve at the pleasure of the governor and are subject to be removed at any time.

The commissioners assisted in the development of the Senior Leader Toolkit and Participant Course Journal, programs that are currently in their pilot phase among state agencies and community organizations. The goal of these trainings is to improve cross-cultural communication and to “sensitize people more than anything,” Garciaz said.

The Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs oversees the Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Capitol and the Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit. The commissioners offer input, consultation, guidance, and are invited to attend. About 1,000 kids of color come to listen to role models of color, but also to present on what they think is or is not working in their schools.

“When these students come to the conferences, they are already born leaders. They are acting in leadership capacities. We call them future leaders, but they really are present leaders, too,” Thompson said.

The commission is attempting to tackle problems communities of color face with help from community leaders and government officials. Its purpose is to ensure that these voices are heard and that minorities are being represented at a state level, because some believe that is not always done effectively through the Utah legislature.

Chavez-Houck said, “I’m looking at the legislature, and I’m looking at who’s up there, and I’m looking at my neighborhood, and I’m looking at the amazing people I know who are very diverse and I’m thinking, ‘If we’re truly a representative democracy, that does not look like our state. That body, the institution, they don’t look like the community.’”

Tomsik helping West Valley community one taco at a time

Story and photo by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

Patricia Tomsik starts her Monday mornings by boiling some water on the stove. The smell of coffee engulfs the cozy kitchen as she sits down and scribbles notes in her notebook, the news playing on a TV in the background. Tomsik lives in West Valley City, the largest Hispanic city in Utah with 37.7 percent of the Hispanic population residing here. The news continues to flash on her TV, showing updates on President Trump’s plan of building a wall. Tomsik watches intently.

“There’s more problems we have to deal with than this wall,” Tomsik says scoffingly, going back to writing in her notebook. She’s referring to the 13.8 percent poverty rate and the 5.4 percent unemployment rate West Valley City is notable for, as well as the high rate of suicide the state of Utah is facing.

Tomsik originally came from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and is used to the massive number of homicides that country faces, but “nothing like this” she says, referring to the suicide rates Utah is infamous for.

Tomsik’s son has struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies since he was a boy. She says that this is normal in a Hispanic community, especially with bullying in schools. “It’s just one of those things that you unfortunately have to deal with, and that’s just the reality,” Tomsik says, shaking her head. “I know other mothers are dealing with it too. It’s just sad.”

Miguel Alonso, a friend of Tomsik’s son, agrees. “We’ve been friends since junior high,” Alonso says, “and it’s kind of just an unspoken agreement that we all have to be there for each other.” Alonso is originally from Mexico City, and was forced to cross the border with his family to live a better life in the United States.

Alonso often spends his dinners at the Tomsik household. Tomsik hosts regular weekly meals at her home, inviting Alonso and his high school and college friends for a classic Mexican meal, complete with music and dancing. “It’s nice to get together,” she says. “We’re all just trying our best.”

While the community feels uneasy with news regarding President Trump’s wall, Tomsik tries to focus on the bigger issues at hand that the Hispanic community in Utah must face. Tomsik pays particular attention to the overall well-being of her community. While she hopes to help the community with depression, she knows it’s not an overnight project.

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Gabriel Moreno, a University of Utah student currently holding an internship in Washington, D.C., grew up with the Tomsik family.

Gabriel Moreno, a University of Utah student, is also attempting to find ways to cope with the issues the Hispanic community is facing. “I’m seeing everything first-hand here,” Moreno discusses over the phone while working out in Washington, D.C. “It’s just scary.”

Moreno originally emigrated from Columbia and grew up in Sandy, Utah. His passion lies in “Project Be Yourself,” a nonprofit organization focusing on mental illness in the state of Utah. “One of the most sickening things about this all,” he says, “is how easy it is to prevent these things. We just need to show the kids that there’s no bad culture, there’s no bad race. We’re all the same.”

By providing her neighborhood with fresh food and a listening ear, Tomsik hopes someone will begin to pay it forward so the good acts can spread. Alonso and Moreno assist as much as they can while also focusing on the online problem of cyber-bullying.

The trio works together in an attempt to help the Hispanic community thrive, but rarely see results. “It’s tough,” Moreno says. “I mean, we can’t just make jobs or say ‘stop bullying’ and expect it to stop. It’s a work-in-progress, but I don’t think any of us are planning on quitting any time soon.”

As Utah sits as the fifth highest in teen and young adult suicide rates, the trio is scrambling to find something to help counter this. Often times, the food and advice are not enough. Tomsik believes that communication and openness about mental health will be a step forward in the right direction. “We’re not talking enough about it,” she says, “and it needs to be talked about.”

As President Trump’s plan to build the wall continues to occupy the screen on the TV, Tomsik simply hums to herself as she resumes scribbling in her notebook, making a grocery list of ingredients for this week’s dinner. She sips her coffee while planning what meal she will prepare next.

Tomsik lives by a “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” attitude, tackling a single problem at a time in the West Valley City community. “It’s hard to measure progress with something so intangible,” she says. “But we’re just going to assume it’s working and go from there.”

 

DREAMers at the U: One step to graduation

Story and photo by SHAUN AJAY

What does it feel like when you walk into a classroom? Do you fear integration? Assimilation? Deportation? Do you worry about your immigration status?

More undocumented immigrants, predominantly Latinx, enter the country and face daily challenges with their legal status, work, livelihood and education. Misconceptions have quickly spread that undocumented folks cannot pursue higher education and consequently secure a better job. Rivarola’s story tells us otherwise.

Alonso Rafael Reyna Rivarola was an undocumented immigrant himself. He moved to the United States from Peru at the age of 11 and has lived in Utah ever since. He attended the University of Utah in 2008 — a time when the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals policy, or DACA, did not exist. The DACA policy began in June 2012, right before Rivarola was finishing his final year at school. During his undergraduate years studying sociology, he worked with a group of scholars called The Mestizo Arts and Activism Collective. The group created a website that continues to serve as a center of information on the undocumented community and experience. It offers a list of scholarship resources for first-generation POC (people of color) college students and DREAMers (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).

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Rivarola poses in front of a collage of DREAMers.

Fast forward to his master’s program in educational leadership and policy. Rivarola wrote a piece on the importance of undocumented student centers. A DREAMer himself, he became the first director of the Dream Center in the state of Utah in 2017. His personal experience allows him to provide support and services to students much like himself. “We work with everyone who enters our doors; those who are historically forgotten in higher education,” he said. Rivarola also became the first advisor at the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA). In that role, he focuses on working with other undocumented students on campus.

The Dream Center consists of a four-person team that works with undocumented students and their families to facilitate their academic success and graduation. The center helps students with their academic pathway, from individual mentorship to scholarship support. 

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2018 that Hispanics are now Utah’s largest minority. They comprise 14 percent of the state’s population, or 434,288 people. 

In Utah, some laws were made to help undocumented students access more affordable education, provided they have graduated from a local high school. For example, HB 144 allows these students to pay in-state tuition. But inversely, a law passed in 2009, SB 81, prevents them from receiving private funding. And now, under SB 253, passed in 2015, students can access federal benefits for their education. 

It’s a complex system that the Dream Center has to work with. And for those who are affected, the question, “Will I be able to afford college?” always lingers silently under the bills that pass in the country or state.

For the Latinx community, whether undocumented or not, higher education is a steep climb that many cannot risk to take. Jasmin Valdivia is a 21-year-old Latina, born and raised in Provo, a city just along the Wasatch Mountain Front. Her parents had both migrated from Mexico. In 2016, she graduated from high school in a majority white neighborhood in Springville. During her high school years, Valdivia involved herself with ballet, orchestra, and cheer — activities that weren’t typical for Latinas, she said.

“I knew what was expected of me as a minority,” she said. Valdivia compared her outsider-insider position of living in Utah to holding a snow globe and looking inside. In her last year of high school, her school counselor only recommended Utah Valley University — a school, she said, that most Latinx students attended. Valdivia considers herself to be an adamant person. She believed in her own abilities and didn’t subject herself to the stereotypes that people imposed on her. She applied and was accepted to the University of Utah Asia Campus, located in South Korea.

Valdivia is the first in her family to attend college. She said her mother graduated from high school and her dad from elementary school. Her grandfather can barely read or write in Spanish. Her first cousin attended a semester in college before getting pregnant and dropping out. A majority of her Latinx friends do fall into the stereotype of settling with just a high school degree. “It’s usually the cultural issue of, ‘Well, my parents didn’t go to college and they’re doing fine,’ and when you think like that, you start to limit yourself,” she said

Valdivia said a friend of hers was brought illegally to the U.S from Mexico. She was a straight-A student in school and a talented musician in her orchestra. Valdivia also said her friend, due to her legal status, was unable to get financial aid to pursue a good music program in college. Now, three years since high school, Valdivia’s friend is still unable to attend university.

What Valdivia hopes to see is a system that is more supportive of giving the Latinx population equal opportunities to pursue their ambitions. She is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in communication and aspires to work in the news field to represent her culture and ethnicity.

With representation on one hand and education on the other, Dream Center Director Rivarola said he believes these elements should work together. He wants more Latinxs pursuing education and eventually become future professors, teachers and paraprofessionals. He said a lot of Latinx students learn typically in their second language, as opposed to their native Spanish. Seeing teachers like themselves serves as an important indicator to strive for success and ultimately leads them to different fields of studies. The Dream Center at the University of Utah remains an active system for any student to reach out to and ask for help.

 

Bev Uipi, Marc Roberts, Jake Fitisemanu Jr. — Pacific Islanders in Utah politics

“If we truly believe in government that is by, for, and of the people,” Jake Fitisemanu Jr. said, “then by definition our governmental bodies should represent the makeup of our communities.”

Story by DIEGO ROMO

In the current social climate of the United States, even a half-mention of the word politics sends many fleeing. The word conjures feelings of distrust, misuse and abuse. But, in Utah’s Pacific Islander community, there is a different story to be told — a story of values, community and customs.

Bev Uipi, Marc Roberts and Jake Fitisemanu Jr. are three Utahns of Pacific Islander descent who are serving their communities in various governmental and political roles across the Wasatch Front. Their backgrounds and stories are unique and diverse, but the culture of community that has always run through the veins of Pacific Islander history connects them all and drives their political outlooks. This trait seems at odds with the current culture of American politics.

For Millcreek City Councilwoman Bev Uipi, politics is no unfamiliar game. The daughter of the only Tongan, and first Pacific Islander, to be elected to the Utah State Legislature, Uipi knows what it means to be truly at the service of her community. And through this firsthand experience of her father’s tenure as a Utah state legislator, she figured she would never put her name on the ballot.

“When he ran, I thought I would never do this,” Uipi said.

But all of that changed when Uipi was studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Utah. It was there that she found a new interest in city management, which sparked the idea to run for office.

Uipi found herself conflicted as she was faced with the decision to pursue a path she never thought she would be traveling.

“For all of that pushback you’d think I wouldn’t want to run, but I did,” added Uipi.

And in 2016 Bev Uipi put her name in the hat for the office of Millcreek city councilmember for District 4 and won by a landslide. Uipi credits the win to the fact that her campaign had far more resources than all of the other campaigns.

“We raised and spent more money than all other campaigns combined,” Uipi said. “I learned a lot of strategies from Dad.”

When she was a young girl, her father told her “Don’t think outside the box, live outside the box.” Phil Uipi also spent time teaching his children about their Tongan heritage and about the epic stories of transoceanic voyages that their ancestors undertook. He shared, too, their keen ability to adapt to new situations and places because they were frequently on the move.

“We were given the skills to survive this far,” Phil Uipi would say, encouraging his children to pursue their dreams.

Uipi credits these lessons with her ability to navigate the very white, very male world of Utah politics.

“Water moves, so does politics,” Uipi said, commenting on her ability to adapt fluidly in this strange environment.

Marc Roberts, state representative for Utah’s 67th district, also never saw himself running for office. But, in 2012, he found himself in a new district after the 2010 census called for redistricting within the state. This change led him to become a more active member of his community, and eventually to office.

Roberts’ fellow community members noticed his newfound passion and encouraged him to run for a leadership position within his community.

“I was looking at people like, you’re crazy, I don’t want to do that,” Roberts said in a telephone interview. “But, push came to shove.”

Roberts ran against four longtime and well respected residents in his community and beat them in the caucus.

“I still remember going to vote. Sitting there standing in line realizing that everyone there is going to vote for me,” Roberts added. “And here I am in jeans and a hoodie looking like a regular guy.”

Roberts grew up in a very large family: nine siblings to be exact. And although he was reared in a household that taught him the core values that are prevalent in many Pacific Islander families, he was not raised in a home where Polynesian culture was at the forefront.

“I’m one foot in, one foot out when it comes to the Pacific Islander community,” he said.

But to Roberts, like many Pacific Islanders, family has always come first.

“To me family is the first level of government,” Roberts said. And that is how he views his role as a political leader in his community. “The stronger the family, the stronger the community.”

Jake Fitisemanu Jr., the current West Valley City councilman for District 4, grew up in both Hawaii and Utah. He never saw himself running for office, either. But during his time in college, Fitisemanu came to find himself elected to student senate on somewhat of a whim.

“I didn’t really campaign in any formal way, I just put my name on the ballot and hoped for the best,” Fitisemanu said in an email interview. “To be completely honest, at that stage in my life, I felt that getting involved would be great for my resumé. It wasn’t really out of a sense of civic duty, but more like an experiential challenge.”

Fast forward a few years and the experience that he thought would only be a footnote on his resumé became a full-time responsibility as the new councilman for West Valley City’s District 4.

In this new position, he hoped to connect his community to policies and resources that would impact their lives in a positive way.

“I feel like local government is the closest access point for everyday people to connect with the policies that impact our daily lives. I wanted to help improve the community where I live and I knew that representing my neighbors on the city council would be an effective and meaningful way to do that,” Fitisemanu said.

Regardless of their background, it seems that for most Pacific Islanders, it all comes back to the family and to the community, which makes them great candidates for leadership positions in their communities. Unfortunately, there are not enough role models in the community.

According to a 2016 article in “@ the U,” Representative Marc Roberts was one of four Pacific Islanders who were elected and had served in some form of Utah politics. That is only four out of about 37,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who reside in Utah, according to 2010 census data. Millcreek City Councilwoman Bev Uipi credits these staggeringly low numbers to representative bureaucracy.

Something has to change.

“If we truly believe in government that is by, for, and of the people,” Fitisemanu said, “then by definition our governmental bodies should represent the makeup of our communities.”

The consequences of COFA for Utah’s Micronesians

Story and photos by MARISSA SITTLER

Sitting in a third-grade classroom, surrounded by miniature sized chairs, bright colors and other seemingly “elementary” things can make what is outside of those four walls seem inconsequential. Yet, the words that Melsihna Folau speaks about the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, inside the classroom are quite the opposite.

Folau is a third-grade teacher at the Pacific Heritage Academy charter school in Salt Lake City. She is one of some 2,300 Micronesians living in Utah, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016. She is Micronesian, born in Pohnpei, but has lived in Utah since 1989 and is married to a U.S. citizen. Folau chose not to become a U.S. citizen, despite being married to one. She says being able to have that connection to her roots holds a sentimental feeling for her. 

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Melsihna Folau continues to work as a third-grade teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy in addition to passionately fighting for Micronesians’ rights.

COFA was signed in 1982 between the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the United States to “provide for U.S. economic assistance (including eligibility for certain U.S. federal programs), defense of the FSM, and other benefits in exchange for U.S. defense and certain other operating rights in the FSM, denial of access to FSM territory by other nations, and other agreements,” according to USCompact.org.

Under the COFA federal law, Micronesians in Utah are not U.S. citizens. This means that they do not hold a permanent ID. They must renew their driver licenses every year, which is a time- consuming process. In a situation like Folau’s, she must take a few hours off from her teaching to wait in line at the DMV for license renewal.

In some cases, she says it can take months for licenses to arrive. For families who do not have relatives already settled in the United States, that waiting period can be harmful to their financial well-being. Folau says, “Anytime you’re new, you know you have to put food on the table, you have to work and with the little money you have, six months of waiting. People don’t understand that six months of waiting, it’s a detrimental thing for a family that is just new.”

 It was not until 2010 that she became aware of the limitations that Micronesians have in Utah. Folau went to renew her driver license at the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles and started getting questioned when an agent told her that she was part of COFA. She was equipped with all the right documentation, but was given a hard time. The DMV agent said, “It’s part of September 11,” and “We need to protect our borders,” referring to the REAL ID Act of 2005. This instance is what sparked Folau’s research into the COFA bill. She heard rumors about the mistreatment of Micronesians in Utah, but did not think much of the gossip at the time. “Stories will be stories until you experience that,” she thought.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 changed everything for Micronesians in Utah. Folau says, “Most of us have been here in the United States for ages, you know, lived, schooled, worked, law-abiding citizens.” The REAL ID Act clumped Micronesians, being under the protection of the United States, as non-citizens who have indefinite stay. “We’re not illegals, we are treated like one. It’s just frustrating for somebody that’s lived here freely all these years,” Folau says about the injustices that COFA has created for Micronesians in Utah.

On Micronesian driver licenses, the word “limited” appears. This draws questioning from state and federal entities. “Banks question you. Any agency that hires you questions you and any cop that catches you wherever you are, questions you,” Folau says. A non-permanent ID can make it difficult for Micronesians to rent or buy a house. “Some people are OK with what we call ‘sardine,’” where families live in very close quarters, but she adds that it can only take a couple years for there to be friction and meltdowns within a household. A recurring question that Folau has is, “Why are these things happening when it’s not necessary?”

Bryan Boaz, who is part of the Marshallese community in Utah, noted in an email interview that COFA negatively impacts Micronesians in more ways than housing alone. Boaz wrote that it affects the Marshallese people in Utah “in employment, school, doctor and all the state and government assistance because of our status.”

Folau and other Micronesians have taken it upon themselves to try to correct the injustices of COFA by working on putting together a bill that is modeled after one that successfully passed in Oregon. Jake Fitisemanu Jr., councilmember for District 4 in West Valley City, Utah, says that their main goals are: 1) to redefine COFA citizens, 2) to obtain permanent state licenses for Micronesians and 3) to extend Medicaid, although he notes that their third goal may be less likely.

Jake Fitisemanu Jr. after speaking to University of Utah students about the Pacific Islander community.

In addition, Folau also wants the bill to recognize the differences of the Micronesian people, which she adds will require a lot of public education. She says, “Yeah, we’re Micronesians, but we’re not one group. We don’t speak each other’s languages. Even here in Utah with a very highly educated population, people are still calling me Polynesian.”

Folau and the others who are trying to re-work the COFA bill have not been able to find someone in Utah’s senate to sponsor it. With support from community resource groups including Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and advice from the Oregon group of COFA Alliance National Network, they have encountered great empathy and help. Despite this, Folau says, “We are just not moving forward at this time.”

Their next steps entail resilience and perseverance. Folau says the Micronesian group will keep “being patient and going from there. We’re not going to give up, it’s been eight years, so we’ll keep going until somebody sees this is really an injustice.”