In last General Conference, Elder Uchtdorf reiterated the 1999 counsel of the First Presidency, a counsel that has actually been given since the 1950s. It says: “In our day, the Lord has seen fit to provide the blessings of the gospel, including an increased number of temples, in many parts of the world. Therefore, we wish to reiterate the long-standing counsel to members of the Church to remain in their homelands rather than immigrate to the United States. … As members throughout the world remain in their homelands, working to build the Church in their native countries, great blessings will come to them personally and to the Church collectively.”
The fact that this counsel is reiterated at General Conference level in 2005, probably means scores of Mormons are still immigrating to the U.S., in particular to the “Mormon West”. Figures are not available, but I presume it pertains to thousands of (planning) immigrants per year, not counting undocumented workers from Mexico or other Latin countries who are members of the Church. We may also assume that the opening of East-European and African countries to the preaching of the Gospel has intensified the number of people desirous to come to the U.S., considering the already intense migrating movement from these countries to Western Europe.
This post does not doubt the merit of the counsel “Remain in your homeland”. It is obvious that having Mormons stay in their units (branches, missions, wards, stakes) will strengthen the local Church by expanding membership and leadership. The more members, the more missionary work, the more converts. It should be exponential.
I am interested in probing deeper in the topic by submitting two questions: 1) Why are so many Mormons still interested in immigration? 2) What can be done to curb the trend? I will try to answer them from my perspective and experience, but am very interested to hear your comments.
1 – Why are so many Mormons still interested in immigration?
The following motives are given in no particular order of importance. Some overlap. Some work hand in hand.
1a – For economic reasons. In migration theory, it is a basic motive why people leave their country of origin: financial push-pull factors, which indeed brought tens of millions to the U.S. during the past centuries. Those factors continue to work today. First, there are people who want to escape deficiencies and find a better life elsewhere. As the Church expands into countries with major economic challenges, in Eastern-Europe, Africa, Latin America, it is inescapable that underprivileged converts will look into emigration as Mormonism turns their attention to the U.S. The image the Church radiates, through its chapels, temples, Conference center, pictures of “typical” American Mormons in Church magazines, does its share to feed the dream of a much better life in Mormon America. But, secondly, there are also those migrants who bring millions of dollars to the U.S., leaving countries where they plateau, or feel crushed by unreasonable taxes or unsatisfied for whatever reason. I know various wealthy Mormon entrepreneurs, retailers, restaurateurs, diamond dealers… who left Western Europe to settle and invest in America’s West.
1b – For education and perspective. Let me illustrate with the story of a Belgian Mormon boy named Mark. Some 25 years ago, in the demanding Belgian school system and because of family problems, Mark got behind in high school. As often happens in such cases, he was step-by-step relegated to the lowest curriculum, in his case to become a gardener, excluded from any chance for higher education. But when he was 20, the Mormon connection provided him an opportunity to come to the U.S. He got his high-school degree, was able to go to college, bloomed, got his bachelor’s, master’s and doctor’s degrees, and is now a top expert in a major U.S. firm. There are numerous Mormon Marks, from various countries, in the U.S. today, fanned out in many states. Indeed, the American school system is remedial, salvaging for those who have the talent and want to work. Imagine the appeal for those who live in countries where the educational system blocks them because it is too restricting, or too harsh at the wrong time, or substandard. The Perpetual Education Fund cannot help them locally in such case. If they are ambitious enough to break the circle, their Mormon links may give them information and opportunities to come to the U.S. Who would have denied it to Mark?
1c – For Church life. Church members in America who have an easily reachable chapel, plenty of experienced leadership, lots of willing and able hands around to serve and to help, Seminary and Institute in the neighborhood, bookstores that carry Church material, Deseret Industries, various kinds of professional LDS services, tax-deductible tithing, etc. can hardly imagine what it means to live in a far-away region where there is just a small, struggling Mormon unit. To live there, not just for the time of a mission, but for life. True, we encounter stalwart members in those small units, immensely dedicated and unshaken by hardships. Each has three or four Church callings, often gives a talk and two lessons every Sunday, travels hundreds of miles weekly to church, to various meetings, to help with missionary work, to do home and visiting teaching to scores of inactives living in a 40-mile radius. And these quiet heroes are even willing to be reprimanded by visiting authorities for not doing enough. But in other cases we see that those burdens, and the isolation, are chipping away at faith and dedication. Hence, together with other reasons, the loss of high numbers of members to inactivity. In that context it is not surprising to see that devout members consider emigration as a Church survival strategy. Young adults in particular, also faced with the prospect of finding no Mormon marriage partner in their home environment, might go after that option.
1d – For the sake of the children. This item ties in with the preceding, but shifts the focus to parents’ concern for their children. Many young people in the international Church do not remain active. Based on my observations over a few decades in Western Europe, I would say around 80%. A young Latter-day Saint is often the only Mormon among his or her peers, under pressure to participate in things contrary to Church norms, lacking the support of experienced leaders and teachers, lonesome in the Church itself where primary, YM and YW only count a few youngsters, of different age groups, and where serious problems sometimes shake the unit. Devout parents with small children, seeing these challenges approaching, may look into emigration to have their children grow up in a Mormon environment, where they can enjoy well functioning Primary, YM, YW, school-integrated Seminary, LDS Scouting, youth camps, momentum towards mission and temple marriage. Sure, none of this is a guarantee for a safer adolescence, but the overall trend seems confirmed: young people in a concentrated Mormon environment have a higher chance to remain faithful, go on a mission, marry in the temple. Parents able to emigrate face a difficult dilemma as the counsel to “remain in your homeland” entails a significant risk of not keeping their children in the Church. Then the family responsibility may outweigh the obligation to the tiny Mormon community in their country. Add to all this that the homeland might be a country where corruption, areligiosity, and low moral standards are rampant.
1e – To escape persecution. The idea that the Church is now well-known and respected throughout the world is, at least for a large part, a PR-illusion. In many countries the Church is considered a suspect cult, even more so now than e.g. 30 years ago. This has to do with the emergence of more recent groups considered “dangerous cults”, or with our entering into countries which do not know religious diversity or where a state Church has a huge impact on the government, or with distrust of things American. New legislation meant to rein in “dangerous cults” also affects the Mormon Church. Cult-hunting individuals and organizations tarnish the Church just as in the 19th century, harass members and scare off investigators. Because of their Church membership, Mormons are sometimes discriminated against in job appointments, promotion, divorce cases, attribution of children, inheritance disputes, etc. Sure, we can hail our courageous Saints who endure it all and keep the faith, but there comes a point where some want to leave it all behind and be able to live their religion serenely and unperturbedly, just like so many who in the past came to the U.S. for that very reason. And somewhat disturbing is the knowledge that the Church has, in case of serious trouble, an efficient exit-strategy in place for the missionaries, but none for the local members. Some members do not want to wait for more severe discrimination and persecution.
1f – Because America remains the promised land. America! No matter how much we say that Zion is now everywhere, our history, doctrines, prophecies, the Book of Mormon, all emphasize that America is the land “which is choice above all other lands”, where Adam dwelt, where the Garden of Eden was located, where the Constitution is divinely inspired. Yes, “Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent” (10th Article of Faith). Yes, “it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it” (Isaiah 2:2-3). Yes, “This is the place”. All over the world, in many languages, Saints continue to sing the stirring calls to gather to Deseret as expressed in “High on the Mountain Top”, “Come, Come, Ye Saints”, “O Ye Mountains High” or “Come, All Ye Saints of Zion”. It is unavoidable that this rhetoric permeates testimonies and yearnings. No matter how much we say we are not an American Church, we are, also confirmed by our geographic center, our centripetal organization, our General Conferences, our programs, our pragmatism, our music, and there is no reason to be embarrassed about it. This undeniable, pioneering, authentic Americanness is a magnet drawing many members spiritually, emotionally – and sometimes physically – towards America. Moreover let us not forget that many investigators — certainly those with preceding emigration intentions — open their door and their heart to the missionaries because of the American connection. It’s ingrained from the beginning.
2 – What can be done to curb the trend?
In view of all the powerful motives given above, I am afraid I have little to offer as valid suggestions. More as (rhetoric) questions to consider.
2a – To what extent can we reinforce the counsel against immigration? Not easily. American law allows to apply for immigration and even encourages some forms (brain drain, exceptional abilities, investment). Church members abroad have the right to seek immigration. The “counsel” discouraging the movement is not a commandment, though one may expect that down the hierarchical line some zealous individuals will interpret it in starker terms and bestow guilt and restrictions on members who consider immigration or who have immigrated. If we really want to stop immigration, we will need to step up the guidelines, but that seems improbable.
2b – Should we stop giving a mixed message? In a previous discussion I drew the attention to the way the Church is dealing with foreign members establishing themselves in the U.S. Assimilation in local American wards used to be the preferred course for some time, but now the existence of own lingual/cultural units is again accepted policy for those who prefer that transition stage. The policy is meant to help immigrants remain active in the Church. Through e.g. the organization of Luz de las Naciones or special devotionals for all Hispanic congregations along the Wasatch Front, the Church sends a strong signal of acceptance of immigrants, even if they are illegal in the country. Perhaps, after all, the Church is even pleased to see new Mormon immigrants help counter the trend of a diminishing Mormon population ratio in Utah.
2c – Should we weaken the attractiveness of Mormon America? These past years the trend has been to reinforce that attractiveness: the building of the Conference Center, the beautification of Salt Lake City’s center, its further planned Church-led revitalization, new temples in the Mormon West, the restoration of Nauvoo, the securing and valuation of other historic landmarks, Church History Tours in the U.S. that become real pilgrimages, pageants, spectaculars, massive youth celebrations, expansion of Mormon university opportunities… The joy and pride of Mormon action is in the U.S. Could and should that be changed? Of course not, but we cannot expect members abroad not to notice it.
2d – Can we make Mormonism abroad as viable as in Utah? Difficult question which can be misunderstood. Just as for the 19th century pioneers, we expect converts to sacrifice and to follow the precepts of a demanding religion. The refiner’s fire. Moreover, is the Church not already doing the maximum for members abroad by providing temples, chapels, programs, material? Yes, and still we lose scores of converts to inactivity. This is not the place for a thorough analysis of the many factors involved. But an important one in this context is the viability of Mormon faithfulness and involvement, as usually defined, in a non-American, non-Mormon environment. A fascinating, albeit delicate topic. It has to do with reasonableness of exigencies, evaluation of the Gospel core versus (hallowed) trivialities, assessment of isolation versus acceptable linking with traditions, social obligations towards non-Mormon family — and, yes, sometimes the American perception of Saints abroad. Indeed, it would make an interesting analysis to study the extent in which present-day Mormon sacrifice-stories mainly draw from Saints abroad, the standard story hailing the family who sells everything they own to be able to go to the temple once. Strange, for it would be unthinkable, and perhaps even unethical, to require this of an American family.
2e – Should we step in to provide legal protection for our members? From my experience, the Church does not provide specialized legal counsel and support when individual members are discriminated against because of their religion. Individual members usually lack the resources to take such action. Also, the Church will not, as a rule, sue cult-hunting individuals or organizations who tarnish us on legally unacceptable levels. Other minority-religions do sue systematically and with growing experience and success. Perhaps there is wisdom in the Church’s policy, but the perceived lack of help in this area is not conducive in discouraging emigration.
There are no doubt many more hints that can be given to curb the trend. But efficient ones?
3 – Some final remarks
3a – My analysis should not give the impression that all members abroad are migration-minded. Many, I presume the vast majority, do not have that desire nor that possibility. Their home-lovingness, employment, family ties… prevent emigration. Among them are great examples of families who stayed put and produced strong second and third generation Mormons. This topic therefore deals with a minority, but still large enough to send them a worldwide message in General Conference.
3b – In all of the above, people unfamiliar with immigration laws may wonder if it is easy to immigrate to the U.S. No, it is not easy, but it is feasible. Around one million immigrants are legally admitted to the U.S. every year. There are many paths making it possible, through sponsoring, employment, investment, brain drain, exceptional abilities, marriage, legalization of dependents, refugee and asylee programs. And, yes, through the Immigration Lottery, allowing 50,000 “winners” to enter the U.S. each year as new permanent residents. Ironically, the Lottery is an interesting path for Mormons, especially for professionals from industrialized nations. I know some prominent Mormons in the U.S. who got in by winning in the Lottery…
3c – Not all immigrants find the success and happiness they expected. It was not different with 19th century pioneers. They need to adapt to a new language and traditions. Some may not feel welcome if the environment continues to treat them as “foreigners”. But I think we can safely say that the vast majority of present-day Mormon immigrants adapt well and thrive. Globalization and easy media-connections with the homeland also help. Their children Americanize quickly.
3d – A positive end note? Many immigrants, I believe, bring to Mormon America the fire of their conversion and the purity and freshness of their convictions. Am I mistaken to say that in a U.S. ward a “foreigner” may often give the most direct and genuine testimony, springing from his or her conversion experience, and geared to the essentials of the Restored Gospel?