Just over a month ago, Kaimi posed a question asking how exactly our Latter-day Saint beliefs should translate into specific ideas on the issue of immigration. His blog post was provoked by press accounts of meetings that Elder M. Russell Ballard and other Church officials had just had with members of the Utah legislature from both parties. These sorts of meetings are nothing unusual; they’ve actually become a matter of tradition. Before each general session, party leaders in both the House and Senate meet separately with Church officials to discuss any issues of importance. What set these particular meetings apart, however, was the increasingly hardline immigration measures the legislature was set to consider during the upcoming legislative session. According to House Minority Whip David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, Elder Ballard and the other Church officials “made a call for humanity” in the immigration debates and legislation, saying that illegal immigrants should not be “demonized.” “The basic message,” Litvack said “was… to step back, not be so reactive and let cooler heads prevail…. we must remember that we are talking about human beings.” The Church officials echoed similar sentiments to House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, urging Republican legislators to “approach this subject with compassion.”
Among the many immigration bills under consideration at the beginning of this legislative session were proposals that would deny undocumented students eligibility for in-state college tuition, repeal Utah’s “driver privilege” cards, require employers to verify employee residency status, empower state law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws, and create a bipartisan immigration task force to study the issue and make recommendations on policies related to illegal immigration. What I’m interested in exploring today is what sort of immigration policies people think the Church would like to see implemented if it had its way. It should be noted that the Church “has taken no position regarding currently proposed immigration legislation,” but it clearly has signaled its discomfort with the direction the immigration debate has taken in recent years.
In the Tribune article above, Church spokesman Scott Trotter said “the blessings of the Church are available to anyone who qualifies for and accepts the Gospel of Jesus Christâ€ and went on to say â€œFederal law allows undocumented persons to provide volunteer church service, including missionary service, within the United States.” What Trotter failed to mention is that the Church is actually responsible for the law that insulates religious organizations from prosecution for, among other things, knowingly permitting undocumented immigrants to be ministers or calling them as missionaries. In 2005, the Church lobbied Senator Bob Bennett to sponsor this “narrow exception” to federal immigration law, and he added the provision to an agricultural spending bill that was later signed into law (prompting Rep. Tom Tancredo to lambaste it as the “Bennett Loophole“).
More recently, this month Elder Ballard, as a member of the Alliance for Unity, opposed the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented college students in Utah. And, on February 13, just one week after a devastating immigration raid in Lindon, Utah, the First Presidency dispatched Elder Marlin K. Jensen to speak alongside Catholic Bishop John C. Wester at Westminster College’s Interfaith Dialogue on Immigration. In his remarks, Elder Jensen urged Utah’s legislature to “take a step back” and approach the issue of illegal immigration with a “spirit of compassion.” He emphasized that “immigration questions are questions dealing with God’s children… I believe a more thoughtful and factual, not to mention humane approach is warranted, and urge those responsible for [the] enactment of Utah’s immigration policy to measure twice before they cut.” Elder Jensen implored others to “meet an undocumented person” and “come to know their family,” and he noted that “if there is a church that owes [a] debt to the immigrant and the principal of immigration it is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Elder Jensen also remarkably stated that “the church’s view of someone in undocumented status is akin, in a way, to a civil trespass. There is nothing inherent or wrong about that status.”
On February 14, in a Deseret News article reporting on Elder Jensen’s remarks, Church spokesman Mark Tuttle said that the Church â€œdoes not see itself as an enforcement agency.” When asked about members who had difficulty reconciling illegal status with the Latter-day Saint belief “in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law,” Tuttle said “I wonder how they’d feel about the second great commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself. It’s not an answer to your question, but it’s another question. Sometimes it’s hard to do them all.”
All of this has led me to believe that, if the Church had its way, it would have lawmakers take a more “comprehensive” approach to any prospective immigration legislation, providing avenues for otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally at the same time as it secures the borders or cracks down on employment violations. Part of me also thinks itâ€™s likely that Church would be pleased to see only the less reactive â€œtaskforceâ€ proposal cited above pass this legislative term. It’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion given that, within the Church, undocumented status is not an obstacle for baptism or temple attendance (or even leadership or missionary assignments), and seeing that the Church has chosen to inject itself into the immigration debate in several significant ways over the past six weeks. This interpretation, however, plays to my biases. I’m admittedly swayed by what I see as the human cost involved in a hardline approach. I’m really curious how others here read the tea leaves though. The Church hasn’t clearly defined what it means by the “spirit of compassion” or just what it considers a “humane approach” to be. (And, as Adam has pointed out, a “hardline approach to immigration can easily be done without demonizing immigrants”). The Church has, however, recently likened undocumented status to a “civil trespass” that is not “inherently” wrong, and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve has gone on record opposing the repeal of in-state tuition benefits for undocumented immigrants. In light of these developments, what sort of immigration policy do you think the Church would consider ideal?