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Mormon Church Under Fire For Immigration Attitude

New America Media, News Report, Marcelo Ballvé

 The scandal over a blacklist of undocumented immigrants has shaken Utah's political establishment and shocked the state's Latino community.

It has also focused attention on a complicated question: What exactly is the attitude toward immigration within Utah’s dominant institution—the Mormon Church?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Church prefers to be known (LDS Church is the accepted shorthand), counts two-thirds of Utah’s residents as members.

No one is blaming the LDS Church for the blacklist (the identity—and religious affiliation—of the state employees under investigation for compiling the list is still unknown). But some are now asking whether the LDS Church should take a more active role in shaping Utah’s and the nation’s immigration debate.

Other socially conservative denominations, including the Southern Baptists and Catholics, have come out in favor of granting undocumented immigrants a path to legal status as part of a new federal immigration policy. These churches have cast immigration reform as an urgent moral and humanitarian issue, and in some cases have been active at the state level lobbying against hard-line laws.

But the Mormon leadership has remained neutral, issuing an official statement on immigration today urging “civil discourse,” “goodwill of all across the political spectrum,” and “careful reflection,” but stopping short of signaling a church position on the issue. 

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.”

Jensen’s intervention may indeed have helped moderate the policy. The law that passed was a watered-down version of the original legislation.

The LDS Church leadership is in an unenviable position on immigration. It must reconcile the worldviews of its often conservative old-line multigenerational adherents with increasingly multiethnic newer membership in the United States and globally.

Latin American converts, who often find the family-centered culture of Mormonism an attractive option, are an important part of LDS Church growth. The church has 1.2 million members in Mexico and a similar number in Brazil. Church members make up 3 percent of Chile’s population.

The LDS Church declined to comment for this article. 

But the emergence of an immigrant blacklist in the Mormon heartland has prompted soul-searching among Mormons in Utah and beyond.

A young Mormon blogger aired worries over a strain of anti-immigrant sentiment he saw running through LDS Church circles.

“When news broke earlier this week that a group of vigilantes in Utah had assembled a list of 1,300 supposed illegal immigrants and sent it to government agencies as well as the press, I should have been shocked,” wrote McKay Coppins in his column at the Mormon Times. “I wasn't.” 

Coppins, who studies journalism at the Church-founded Brigham Young University in Utah, added that some LDS Church members espouse knee-jerk opinions on the issue: “ . . . on the question of immigration, I've encountered far too many misinformed, self-righteous people who misuse LDS teachings to justify their hateful rhetoric and defend their narrow worldview.”

There is a split among Mormons on immigration, said Joanna Brooks, a California-based member of the LDS Church and a religion scholar who covers Mormonism for religiondispatches.org.

“While Mormons don't generally like to talk about political divisions within the Church membership, the immigration debate has revealed some fault-lines,” Brooks wrote in an email.

True to this wider division, politically prominent Mormons have championed policies on opposing sides of the immigration debate.

Russell Pearce, an Arizona state senator and LDS Church member, was the main backer of SB 1070, which is being challenged in court by the U.S. Justice Department. The law authorizes Arizona police to investigate the immigration status of suspects when there is “reasonable suspicion” they may be here illegally. 

Other Mormons in politics— Nevada’s U.S. Senator Harry Reid for one— have taken a different tack, and have pushed for federal immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Even before the blacklist controversy erupted, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had organized a summit on immigration to be held at his offices, and invited politicians, community groups, and religious leaders, including LDS Church officials. 

It’s unclear whether the Church will send a representative, but the summit will be closely watched for any signals that the LDS Church leadership is recalibrating its stance on immigration. 

Last month, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, also a church member, made waves when he said the LDS leadership should come out against Arizona’s law to dispel any notions SB 1070 has tacit Church support. 

“I think that would help stop an Arizona style law here, if they would definitely come out against the Arizona style law,” Shurtleff said on Salt Lake City’s ABC 4. 

In its official statement on immigration, the LDS Church has been careful to leave the decision-making to politicians, but without expressing clear guidelines for policy. “Elected individuals have the primary responsibility to find solutions in the best interests of all whose lives will be impacted by their actions.”

Despite its high-profile role supporting Proposition 8, LDS Church generally refrains from outright political advocacy, except on issues linked to family and gender roles, said Brooks, the religion scholar. 

(The Church teaches marriage between man and woman is “sacred, ordained of God from before the foundation of the world,” and often warns against “gender confusion.”)

On immigration, the LDS Church may find its “above-it-all” stance hard to maintain over time, as the battle-lines in the debate become more pronounced.

Anti-immigration activists often accuse the LDS Church of providing “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants who participate in congregations called wards and stakes, some of which are wholly Latino.

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, a Republican Utah legislator who did missionary work for the LDS Church in Venezuela, says on his website he is moving “full steam ahead” to write a Utah version of Arizona’s immigration law and will introduce it in time for the next legislative session in January 2011. Sandstrom criticized the blacklist, but said it did not affect his intentions.

Sandstrom did not answer e-mail and phone messages asking for comment. But he has said publicly he expects the LDS Church to remain neutral and refrain from interfering with his bill.

Meanwhile, the immigration debate in Utah and the Southwest is at a dangerous “fever pitch,” said Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah. “I would hope that there could be a stronger statement” on immigration from the LDS Church, she said. “I think that would be helpful.”

Reid Baer, a Tennessee-based LDS Church member, conservative activist, and video-blogger, said the presence of undocumented immigrants in the Church makes him “uncomfortable.” In his view, the LDS Church could “come out a little stronger” against illegal immigration.

“Because I am a loyal Mormon I do not criticize my leadership,” Baer said. “(But) … is there a part of me that thinks the Church should come out and say something? Yes. But I also think—what would they say? They’re playing the middle ground.”

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