By Mary Slosson
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah insists that on immigration issues, it is no Arizona. Its laws are kinder and gentler, officials say. Despite its conservatism, Utah is one of only three states, for instance, where illegal immigrants can drive.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday that upheld a key part off Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants will set the pace for Utah and other states where laws have been on hold pending the high court decision.
Passed in 2011, a year after Arizona's law, Utah's bill requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone detained for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Unlike neighboring Arizona, Utah makes checks discretionary for those suspected of lesser offenses.
"I went out of my way to tame down (Utah's law), to really specifically go after criminals and not the soccer mom," said state Representative Stephen Sandstrom, chief architect of Utah's law.
Unlike Arizona, Utah passed provisions outlining a guest worker program and allowing illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition. But those aspects did not take effect, and experts say implementation is unlikely.
Human rights activists see little difference in the policies of the two states.
"There is this idea that Utah is more pro-immigrant than other states," said Esperanza Granados, an attorney for the Utah American Civil Liberties Union.
"The truth is that it (the law) has the same impact on the community. There is a risk of racial profiling. People are afraid. They don't know what's going to happen," she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Arizona law's most controversial aspect, requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they stop.
But in a split decision, the justices also ruled that three other challenged provisions went too far in intruding on federal law, including one making it a crime for illegal immigrants to work and another requiring them to carry their documents.
"We believe this is a win for Utah," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said at a news conference after the high court ruling was announced. "It really confirms that the Utah legislature did something different."
The ruling by the highest court in the United States goes to the heart of a fierce debate over the 11.5 million illegal immigrants the government estimates to be in the country.
President Barack Obama has vowed to push for comprehensive immigration legislation if re-elected on November 6. Polls show Hispanics, now 16 percent of all Americans, overwhelmingly support Obama. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opposed the administration's challenge to the Arizona law.
'UTAH NEVER USED TO BE LIKE THIS'
One plaintiff in a Utah lawsuit filed by the ACLU and others is 36-year-old Alicia Cervantes, who was born in Utah but whose partner is an illegal immigrant. The couple avoids activities as camping and fishing, fearing being targeted for their ethnicity.
"We try to avoid certain places because they have random checkpoints, or we know of the officers targeting Latinos," she said. "Utah never used to be like this."
The Utah law lets authorities query the immigration status of passengers in a vehicle whose driver has been detained, and requires proof of citizenship for many public services.
A federal judge has stayed the main law, HB 497, pending the Supreme Court decision on Arizona's law.
"Whatever happens to the Arizona law is basically going to tell the tale for the Utah law," said Gabriel Chin, an immigration law professor at the University of California-Davis.
Of the four provisions in Arizona's immigration law that were before the Supreme Court, two are mirrored in Utah law: The one requiring immigration checks for those detained by police, and another allowing police to arrest immigrants without a warrant if suspected of a crime that makes them deportable.
But there are differences. "The Arizona law was designed to make it a crime for an undocumented person to be in the state," Chin said. "The Utah law doesn't go that far."
Over time, Sandstrom, the Utah law architect, has shifted his immigration stance. After a revelatory experience a year ago, he now supports paths for illegal immigrants to become citizens.
A 19-year-old woman named Sarah came up to him after a public meeting and shared her story: She was three when her parents brought her from Mexico. She was an honors student, planning on working to save money for college, when her parents told her she was in the country illegally.
"This girl, she is trapped. And we've got hundreds of thousands of kids in her situation that are trapped in this no man's land," Sandstrom said.
He still backs his enforcement bill, but wishes he had worked with the Hispanic community to make clear that it was part of a package of laws. Sandstrom ran for Congress this year, but was ousted during Utah's Republican convention after losing the conservative vote over his new immigration stance, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought into the United States as children will be able to avoid deportation for at least two years and get work permits under a June 15 order issued by Obama.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Desking by Christopher Wilson)