As Utah Mulls Immigration Laws, Mormons Struggle to Stake Out Position

Utah's Salt Lake Temple - Photo: JPStanley

Utah's Salt Lake Temple. (Photo: JPStanley)

Immigration may be the next fault line for the Mormon church.

In late 1800s, Utah’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints split over the issue of plural marriage, resulting in a mainstream church taking root and flourishing in Salt Lake City, and a fundamentalist branch that continues to practice polygamy.

In the 1970s, the church settled another dispute when it decided to accept African American men as priests and allow them to officiate at ceremonies.

Analysts think immigration could be the next focus of a major internal church struggle.

“It’s dividing the church,”  Aaron Tarin, an immigration lawyer and a Mormon, told Fi2W.

Even though the Church of Latter Day Saints is headquartered in a predominately conservative, Republican state, a growing population of Latino Mormons is causing an identity crisis.

“The church is fairly neutral now, but when things get ugly, I see many church members having to make some difficult decisions,” said Tarin, a partner at Ishola-Tarin PLLC, a firm that specializes in immigration law.

Tarin calls it a “difficult balancing act.” On the one hand, many church members welcome the Latinos as brethren. Some of the immigrants have immigrated to the U.S. after being introduced to the LDS by missionaries in Latin America. On the other hand, church members tend to be politically conservative, which means they support harsh laws concerning undocumented immigrants.

Utah belongs to the growing league of states who are frustrated with Congress’ inability to pass an immigration reform law. Some state lawmakers want Utah to write its own law, but one that would avoid the embarrassing court challenges to Arizona’s SB 1070 .

University of Utah political science Prof. Matthew Burbank, who is not Mormon, said the state has acknowledged problems with illegal drugs and gangs being tied to undocumented immigrants. However, the predominantly Mormon society, “doesn’t want to see families hurt and neighborhoods threatened.”

Utah is in a kind of “waffle-y position,” he said.

Out of nearly 2.8 million Utah residents, the state’s undocumented population is estimated between 60,000 and 110,000, said Tarin.  Immigrants are typically employed in large agricultural and mining industries, manufacturing, construction as well as hotels and resorts.

Burbank said there has been a “clear rise” in immigrants in the last 10 years in the state capital of Salt Lake City and other urban centers.

“There’s evidence there are a fair number of Latino workers, many of whom are probably undocumented,” he said.

Tarin said his church is torn between a compassionate majority who regard immigrants as “sons and daughters of God” and some in the LDS hierarchy who are conservative Republicans and uncomfortable with undocumented immigrants. Add to that the fastest growing ethnic population in the LDS: Latinos.

“There is in LDS a big chunk of fairly conservative law and order-importance of authority-not breaking the rules elements,” he said. “On the other hand, the church is trying very hard to become an international church. It does a lot of outreach in many countries including Mexico. [Anti-immigration] is not the message they want to send,” said Burbank.

The LDS cited its policy of “neutrality” when contacted for this report.

“The complex issues surrounding immigration are a matter of increasing concern and debate for all in this country,” the church said, in a recent statement given to Fi2W. “We repeat our appeal for careful reflection and civil discourse when addressing immigration issues. Finding a successful resolution will require the best thinking and goodwill of all across the political spectrum, the highest levels of statesmanship, and the strongest desire to do what is best for all of God’s children.”

Asked if the LDS may have undocumented members, spokesman Buddy Blankenfeld demurred. “We don’t ask them about that,” he said, referring to immigration status.

Tarin believes the LDS is fundamentally pro-immigrant, but would not want to appear partisan. He said some church members with issues about their immigration status reach out to their bishops, who would sometimes refer them to him.

“Some bishops would call me saying we have a good brother in my ward. How can you help?” Tarin said. LDS does not finance legal defense costs, but members who hear of deportation cases often reach out and pass the hat, he added.

A range of immigration bills are currently under consideration by the Utah legislature. One proposes identity verification for immigrants, another would extend health insurance to children of legal immigrants.

Two more proposals have attracted attention recently.  Republican State Representative Stephen Sandstrom announced he would sponsor Utah’s version of Arizona’s  SB1070 in the 2011 session, with a provision prohibiting racial profiling.

Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson’s proposal for a guest worker program sounds less punitive. His concept would require immigrants (mainly agricultural and service industry workers) who wish to be hired by Utah businesses to post a surety bond to be deposited in a trust account. The guest workers would undergo a background check, have to be disease-free and pay their own health insurance “so they don’t access the health care system.”  Should the guest worker violate the terms of his or her visa, they would forfeit the bond. Stephenson has acknowledged the need for immigrant workers in the state. He said Utah employers should be able to hire them legally, “and we should provide the means.”

But some immigration advocates have questioned the ability of guest workers to put up thousands of dollars for the bond.

Sandstrom’s proposal has attracted the “most controversy,” said Burbank.

“What he has done is to float the idea, schedule a series of meetings all over the state, and ask critics to help him improve on his bill,” he said. This reflects once more the conflicted nature of the immigration debate. “This has dampened a little bit some of the criticisms.”

Even Utah’s governor, an LDS member, is in favor of a law that would address the flow of undocumented immigrants, but wants a solution that is “not hard-edged, not looking like racial profiling,” said Burbank.

It is “highly unlikely,” said Tarin that any of the proposals would be enforced. The court decision blocking parts of SB 1070 sent a strong message that immigration is a federal concern.

“I can see some serious challenges trying to make these [proposals] work within the federal rubric of the immigration reform law,” he said.

Tarin thinks the immigration bills and proposals generate new ideas and hopefully solutions, and are totally “not in vain.”

An immigration bill will easily sail through  the GOP-dominated state legislature, Burbank predicted. Whether it will be enforced is another question.

“Given the magnitude of the concerns, legislation is needed,” he said. At best, it would send a message that the state is acting on violations of the law by immigrants.

“It will be very big politically, symbolically,” he said.

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