The Mormon Church and its immigration quandary
I spent much of last week reporting on the Mormon Church, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and its position or non-position on immigration.
The result was a 1500-word article that was published today at New America Media, just as Utah authorities gathered for a one-day immigration summit convened by Gov. Gary Herbert.
Utah, of course, is the headquarters of the LDS Church, and a state where two-thirds of the population belong to that church.
Why is Utah a hot state for immigration politics? Because Utah, just north of border state Arizona, is a likely next stop for a hardline approach towards immigration. Already, a Utah legislator, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, says he will introduce a Utah law that will mirror Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, set to go into effect later this month, which authorizes police to investigate a suspect’s immigration status. Both Sandstrom and the sponsor of Arizona’s legislation, Russell Pearce, are LDS Church members.
Utah’s immigration situation also became national news last week when a blacklist of 1,300 alleged undocumented immigrants living in Utah (a list illegally compiled by state employees using government databases) was circulated to media and government offices. The blacklist, an attempt to “out” hundreds of people living in the country without papers, was universally condemned (with the exception of some Utah Minutemen, who didn’t like that one of their leaders condemned the list).
All of this, for me, raised the question: How does the Mormon Church, which is the dominant institution in Utah, feel about immigrants?
Here’s the heart of my story:
After the blacklist controversy erupted last week, Peggy Wilson, a Mexican-American and a Catholic, was among the mostly Latino political activists who convened a Salt Lake City press conference Friday to denounce the list.
The activists wore shirts reading “I Could be Illegal” and said the blacklist—which contained Social Security numbers, phone numbers, even the due dates of pregnant women—had terrified the Hispanic community.
Wilson, who described the list as “Gestapo-esque,” said in a phone interview after the press conference that the LDS Church should take a stronger stand in favor of immigration reform, and against anti-immigrant bigotry.
The current LDS Church position is evasive, Wilson said, especially compared to the vocal support the LDS Church gave to a different political cause—Proposition 8 in California, which sought to restrict gay marriage.
“The Mormon Church can come out and support Proposition 8 so virulently and just become very quiet when it comes to immigration reform,” Wilson said. “The silence speaks volumes.”
But other observers said the church already is moving—albeit gradually—to educate itself on the immigration debate and toward more explicit support of ethnic and immigrant communities.
“I get the sense that there are wheels in motion,” said Isabel Rojas, program director at the Utah immigrant advocacy group Comunidades Unidas and a member of the LDS Church. The Colombia-born Rojas said she routinely works with the Church on Hispanic outreach issues and urges its public relations department to be more proactive in defining a message on immigration.
“We are trying, we are working with them,” said Rojas, who added that the message she brings to the LDS Church is simple: “If you don’t define this for yourselves other people will continue to define it for you.”
Another LDS Church member and prominent Salt Lake City Latino activist, Tony Yapias, has written a letter to Church leaders that also asks them to take a position.
LDS Church leaders have, in fact, spoken out publicly in favor of immigrants.
In 2008, as Utah was considering a state law to clamp down on illegal immigration, LDS Church Elder Marlin Jensen asked lawmakers to “take a step back” and act “with a spirit of compassion.”
“Immigration questions are questions dealing with God’s children,” Jensen was quoted as saying in the Church-owned Deseret News.
Jensen, who holds office in a key LDS Church body called First Quorum of the Seventy, went on to say: “I believe a more thoughtful and factual, not to mention humane approach is warranted, and urge those responsible for enactment of Utah’s immigration policy to measure twice before they cut.”