Today’s Church Statement on Immigration

Apropos of our recent political discussions, the Church released a statement today proclaiming neutrality on a Utah immigration bill and saying “The Church repeats its oft-stated caution to members that they should never infer that the church endorses their personal political positions.”

For those that haven’t been following the story, a Latino advocacy group said that a member of Utahns for Immigration Reform pointed to the 12th article of faith as support for his view that undocumented immigrants be precluded from obtaining drivers licenses and other government benefits. Yesterday, the Latino group apparently met with Church leaders seeking clarification on the Church’s position on undocumented immigrants, and the Church responded with a press conference today. Unsurprisingly, the Church said it did not take a stand on the merits of the issue, and it expressed concern that someone used Church teachings “as apparent justification for their political purposes.” I have just two little observations.

First, setting aside the merits of the political issue, the Church’s statement contains fairly strong language. On issues where Church has not taken a formal stand, it is clearly inappropriate to insinuate official Church support for one side or the other. But today’s statement seems to take things further, saying that even “Church teachings” should not be used as public justification for a political position. This seems to come close to the view that religious (or at least Mormon) discourse has no place in the political sphere, a view that many Mormons reject with good reason. So how should we understand the Church’s statement?

Second, regardless of how one feels about how the state should treat undocumented immigrants, I am somewhat surprised there has not been more discussion of the *morality* of immigration in Mormondom. As I understand, throughout California, Texas, New York, and elsewhere, undocumented immigrants are being baptized daily. Some likely hold leadership positions. Although the Handbook says that “members who emigrate to any country should comply with applicable laws,” and precludes Church employment for undocumented workers, there are no express limitations on, say, callings or temple recommends for such members. And there is not a lot of guidance from Church publications or talks on point. It seems that Church decisions on this issue are made locally, or if centrally then far below the radar. Perhaps those of you that taught immigrants while missionaries can give me a broader background here. It certainly seems right to me that the Church does not condition blessings on members’ immigration status, but I suppose there is a limit to this principle (i.e., I can see problems that may arise if a bishop was an undocumented immigrant). Any views on the morality of immigration?

33 comments for “Today’s Church Statement on Immigration

  1. W/O weighing in normatively, on the postive side of things:

    The Church recently (last year or so?) decided that illegal aliens/undocumented church members are not eligible to serve missions. We have one guy in our S. Philly branch that would like to serve, he is going to be 19 soon, but…he doesn’t have a green card…so he has to choose between going back to Mexico to serve…or not serving and staying in the U.S.

    Perhaps the Bush amnesty will change his position…if it doesn’t…I hope that this faithful member will serve God first…however he feels called to do so.

  2. Reading the article, it is clear that this type of legislation does not fit within the category of issues the church ordinarily does opine on. Furthermore, the church’s beliefs don’t really have a bearing on whether the legislation is wise public policy or not, even if the church’s teachings might affect one’s personal view (e.g. belief in honoring and sustaining the law) as to the legitimacy of giving individuals rights or benefits under state law when the individuals’ very presence is illegal.

  3. Thanks for the links, Greg. This statement is unfortunately further proof of how poorly managed the church’s press office is.

    The crux of the statement is this non-sequitur:

    “The church is investigating complaints that Utahns for Immigration Reform enforcement are citing church teachings as apparent justification for their political purposes,” LDS Church spokesman George Monsivais said, reading from a prepared statement at a Thursday morning press conference. “The church repeats its oft-stated caution to members that they should never infer that the church endorses their personal political positions.”

    As quoted, UFIRE didn’t claim that the church endorsed their political position. UFIRE claimed that the 12th Article of Faith’s stipulation that Mormons follow the law speaks directly to the question of whether it is moral for immigrants to disregard immigration laws. But rather than address that claim the press office dodges the question and changes the subject.

    And the first sentence is patently absurd. The church investigates claims that someone is drawing political conclusions from the the church’s teachings? Really, the church needs to do itself a huge favor and let the staff at the press office find work they’re suited for.

    As for illegals, our Stake President has been told (I don’t know from whom) that illegal immigrants are not eligible for initial temple recommends, but that they can have their recommend renewed if they already have one. I don’t like this policy. (And for someone quoting the 12th Article of Faith, I don’t see why the church should inquire about immigration laws but not traffic laws, tax laws, business licensing laws, etc. Do you know how many Mormons remodel their house without getting building permits?)

  4. If I hear you correctly Brent, you are saying that on this topic the issue of what is best as a matter of public policy can be completely separated from what one feels is right as a matter of personal moral belief: Church teachings are relevant in the private sphere but not the public. Am I misunderstanding you?

  5. Great question Greg. Note, for my part, I think that is yet another false dichotomy, i.e. ends/means, public/private, etc. I think we need to live a holistic life…and then we will see/exp less cognitive dissonance, dishonesty, inconsistency, and more balanced and principled lives.

  6. Obeying and sustaining the law clearly must have limits when it comes to patently immoral laws. Perhaps this is why the Church doesn’t see anything in need of clarification on the 12th A of F front. Fine by me, since most of our immigration laws strike me as fairly awful.

  7. In France, it is (or at least, it was several years ago) the Church’s policy not to baptize undocumented immigrants. Many poor refugees from Africa have been turned away from the font for this reason. This seemed to me at the time to be a harsh punishment for a largely administrative transgression.

    Upon reflection, however, the policy makes a little more sense to me, not from an “honoring the law” perspective, but from the view that the transitory and impermanent status of many illegal immigrants (les sans-papiers, as their are callously referred to), results in them being less likely to bring real church growth and stability. The rationale is that they present a drain on local resources that most often ends in inactivity.

    I’m not suggesting that this position justifies all — it’s blatantly anti-immigrant and xenophobic (and typically French). Further, I’m an immigrant myself and I view citizenship and documentation to be more red tape than anything else. But as a bishop, interviewing an undocumented immigrant for baptism, I’d have to think about how this prospective sheep would affect the rest of my flock, no?

    I agree that references to the 12th A of F are a pretty spurious means of justifying anti-immigration laws. But the ‘morality’ here should perhaps be examined both from the perspective of the immigrant as well as from the community where he/she currently resides. At first blush it does “seem right … that the Church does not condition blessings on members’ immigration status,” but it often does so in fact, and not entirely without cause.

  8. “The rationale is that they present a drain on local resources that most often ends in inactivity.”

    Have you been in any wards where *most* of the people baptized do not drain resources for a while and then become inactive? I haven’t.0

  9. I think that the problem in this case is that there are Mormons on both sides of the issue. And the Hispanic advocacy group actually approached the church and asked for a clarification. (See the article in today’s SL Trib. for a different slant…and some interesting personality insight.) I can also see how church doctrine could be called down to support both sides of the issue–rigid enforcement of laws vs. compassion and missionary work…off the top of my head.

    This relates back to the MESJ discussion, but I’m bothered by publicly pulling the church into a political dispute. It limits a divinely inspired organization (gospel as a whole) to the interpretation of those not in authority to make interpretations. I think there is a huge amount of wisdom in leaving as many choices open to individual interpretation as possible, because it means the church can be more inclusive. The problem with this vagueness is that we, as a people so concerned with consistency, can’t handle it, and start saying things like, “well the church can’t really come out and say it, but……” Every time they read that letter about politics in sacrament meeting I laugh because I know there are Republicans who think it is tongue in cheek and Democrats who think it is a smack down for the Republicans. So entertaining.

    Having said that, I honestly think I’m with Nate on this point. Our immigration laws are horrible–and I personally see no problem with a litte civil disobedience. However, I speak for myself only. If I weren’t so lazy I could post a form language lawyer disclaimer here.

  10. Greg, not exactly. I don’t know that I correctly stated what I was trying to say. (Comes from not having had a lot of sleep, taking the Utah bar, and flying in late last night, and getting right back into the swing of things at work today.)

    My point was, as to this particular legislation, one cannot say that the church opposes such legislation. Thus, one should not say or infer such is the case in debating this issue in the “public.” That appears to be what prompted the Church’s statement. “Statements erroneously claiming the LDS Church supported proposals to restrict illegal aliens from getting a state driver’s license could be the final straw for bills that have already received cool receptions from lawmakers.” Now, as it relates to individuals and their beliefs, religious views should have a bearing on their opinion on this or any other legislation, and such religious principles could be vetted in appropriate settings. But it would be inappropriate to suggest Church support of a particular political position upon which the Church has not opined. Depending on the venue, though, people could and maybe even should, discuss how Church teachings square with one view or another. On some matters, however, the question of church teachings and political position are not up for debate. For instance, based on myriad statements by Church leaders, the Church and church teaching are squarely against same-sex marriage. However, if we were to discuss government welfare, all we would have are principles and statments to discuss with each of us forming our opinion. I might say that I believe a certain position to be more consistent with doctrinal principles, but I could not say “the Church opposes welfare entitlements.”

  11. Kristine,


    But in the case of undocumented immigrants, the poverty is much harsher and is frequently coupled with language difficulties and social barriers that the normal church misfits can’t match. When I talk of drain on resources, I mean literally – the storehouses get emptied. When I talk about inactivity, I mean that the immigrant member vanishes off into nowhere.

  12. The issue of immigration is an interesting one. While I certainly understand why immigrants sometime come to America illegally, it seems that for consistency the church always gets upset when people are breaking the law. (With exceptions for things like speeding which are considered minor) Could it turn a blind eye to immigration and not be hypocritical? I don’t think the appeal to the 12th article of faith is misplaced considering the amount of rhetoric by the church on this point in manuals and talks.

    The danger in moving from principles to political legislation or execution of legislation is that I think the church tends to focus often on expediency on political matters. So while a bill might make sense given ones religious beliefs, the church may oppose it because of practical matters. (And I should hasten to add that I don’t find this wrong in the least)

  13. As my initial post indicates, I’m basically with Karen and Nate on ignoring immigration issues among members. But if Lyle’s and Steve’s experiences are typical, that isn’t what the Church is (quietly) doing. For good or bad, the Church cannot be neutral on the issue of whether undocumented members can be baptized, receive temple recommends, or go on missions (unless they delegate such decisions to local leaders). And it appears that in at least some quarters, immigration status matters to the Church, even in the absence of a clarification on how the 12th A of F should apply.

    Are we sure that the press office’s statements aren’t vetted by higher ecclesiastical leaders? That would surprise me.

    Congrats on surviving the bar; for me, the second bar was far more painful than the first. You said “depending on the venue, though, people could and maybe even should, discuss how Church teachings square with one view or another.” In what venue would it be *inappropriate* to discuss general Church teachings on an open issue?

  14. I don’t think that Lyle and Steve’s issues are typical. Anecdotally, I’m aware of instances where illegal immigrants have been baptized and received temple blessings, and much support from the church. I don’t know, but would imagine that in some spanish speaking wards/branches, the majority of the members are illegal. I don’t think that there is a rule that is uniformly applied. I would be interested to know if someone knows differently.

    In response to Greg and Brent, I think the majority of venues are appropriate, I think the inappropriate venues, to name two, are in the utah legislature and the press. I think the posture of the speaker matters as well. There is a difference between expressing your personal opinion, and purporting to speak for the church.

  15. “I don’t think that Lyle and Steve’s issues are typical”

    Okay, clearly I meant to say I don’t think that Lyle and Steve’s EXPERIENCES are typical. I would never insinuate that either of you have “issues.”

  16. Karen: I have no idea if my experiences are typical. They may not have been typical for France, let alone the Church. I thought it was a very strong and somewhat repugnant position, and I can’t imagine the U.S. Church behaving that way. Still, you never know, since our church seems to quickly bow to secular authority.

    As for issues, oh yeah, I’ve got ’em. But they are sadly very typical issues.

    The wider issue of inserting Church teaching into political discourse is very interesting, but I don’t think that’s what the Church is really upset about here. I agree with Karen that what’s really upsetting the leaders is some political dude putting words in the mouth of the Prophet. If it were a simple case of someone quoting scripture in a political battle, I doubt we’d be seeing a statement from the Church.

  17. Steve, I think there’s a question more fundamental than the relative drain on resources/likelihood of future inactivity that needs to be answered before we can have a baptismal policy that makes sense with regard to illegal immigrants or any other group that may have difficulty assimilating into Mormon culture. The question is whether we prioritize the sacramental aspect of baptism, regarding it as an ordinance which is necessary and in itself useful in peoples’ progression, or whether we value it more as a sign of *joining* the Church, committing to the requirements of a faith community. Clearly, it is both, but I don’t think we have articulated the dual nature of it for ourselves very well–missionaries tend to proceed as though performing/receiving the ordinance is paramount; bishops and ward members are left with the task of enforcing the community requirements, often with people who had little or no sense of those requirements when they were baptized. I think it matters a lot whether converts come from a Catholic or Protestant background–being baptized as a Catholic is primarily sacramental; for Protestants joining a faith community, changing one’s “walk” are primary. My experience in the South (of the U.S.) suggests that Protestant converts are much more likely than converts from other backgrounds to stay active in the Church, precisely because they understand participation in the community to be a reason for baptism.

  18. Greg, Karen identified the two areas that I was thinking of. Also, I think a related story I read while I was in Salt Lake mentioned that a big dispute about the church’s position broke out during a debate or meeting between two Latino entities on the legislation. That context, also seemed somewhat inappropriate.

    Also, thanks, we’ll see how things went in a few weeks, although I feel good about it. The second was much more painful especially after three and 1/2 years of practicing in a couple of narrow areas. Now all I have to do is get a job in Utah. If anyone knows of any firms there looking for an estate planning/probate lawyer with significant experience with tax exempt/nonprofit organization work as well, let me know.

  19. “I don’t know, but would imagine that in some spanish speaking wards/branches, the majority of the members are illegal. I don’t think that there is a rule that is uniformly applied. I would be interested to know if someone knows differently.”

    I think immigration issues are treated differently in contexts where there are a significant number of undocumented members, such as here in Tucson. In our stake, which has a very significant number of Mexican immigrants (some of which I assume are undocumented), this issue is never brought up. It is probably treated at the individual level since most people don’t like to advertise their undocumented status.

    I have a friend who served a Spanish-speaking mission in So. Cal and he tells me that he did not baptize one person who was *not* an undocumented immigrant. The wards and branches of our border states are filled with people like this – good members of the church who for one reason or another came to the U.S. and found the gospel while doing so. I’m sure that General Authorities don’t want to drive away the large contingency of new members who are sympathetic to the problems with immigration policy. Further, why would we want to deny someone gospel covenants because they are seeking economic improvement for their families? Doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  20. I can second a lot of Steve’s experiences in France. In Portugal during the early 90’s we had a hard time with a widespread collapse in the church. There had been lots of baptisms, often of illigal immigrants from Angola. The quick influx of members who didn’t remain active was, to me, a contributing factor in the decrease in activity rate. Branches went from 30 members in the mid 80’s to 150 during the turn of the decade, down to 10 or so when I was there.

  21. Kristine–excellent point. But really, you’ve underscored why the debate makes me sad, and why I think that disregarding immigration status should be the rule. Doesn’t it seem unjust, in an eternal sense, to deny someone the necessary salvational step of baptism (in a sacramental sense) if they are willing to take that step? Likewise, wouldn’t the inclusion of an immigrant to a faith community only help them on the road to contributing positively (both monetarily and psychicly) to the community?

    Sorry to sound like a lawyer, but if we approach this as a balancing test, it seems to me that the eternal importance of baptism far outweighs the legality issues. (And having said that, I sound like a lawyer with an identity crisis…) Even the inclusion in a faith community, from a policy standpoint seems, to me, to outweigh the technical legal status issue.

    However, I think some would argue that legal immigration status should be a condition precedent to baptism, and the absence of it acts as a veto. I suppose, this all boils down to, once again, how one views the current immigration laws.

  22. I think the Church sometimes takes into account the justness of the legal system when deciding whether legality issues should inhibit a person from making covenants. In Chile divorce of any kind was illegal (a legacy of Chile’s Catholic tradition), and so investigators who were not divorced but living with a new partner in a common law marriage could be baptized, after an extensive interview with the mission president. Perhaps this is one circumstance where the Church is turning a blind eye to “criminal” activity. I’m confused though that some stakes would put requirements and others wouldn’t. Again, I think this must have to do with the extent of the local immigrant population.

  23. Kristine: the dual nature of baptism (personal ordinance/community membership) was something I was trying to allude to earlier, but I’m glad you brought it out in the open. It is interesting to see how the issue of immigrants brings tension between the two elements. In my mind you’re dead on — for missionaries it’s all about the personal saving ordinance, and for bishop’s it all about joining the flock.

    Is this tension necessarily central to resolving the issue of what to do with illegal immigrants? I’m not sure.

  24. baptism and temple entrance are one thing…no immigration bar. but…serving missions apparently is…and baptism in foreign countries maybe too.

  25. should’ve spell-checked — sorry. No apostrophe should in “bishops” there. That particular error drives me nuts.

    BTW, I just want to reinforce that I really believe that it’s OK to baptize illegal immigrants, lest any of you take me to be a horrible person.

    Perhaps what’s needed is a more serious approach to integration of these new members? Chris’ experiences in Portugal, my experiences in France — they aren’t isolated incidents. We don’t want fragilization of the Church community. Thoughts as to how to overcome the new member hurdles and immigrant issues?

  26. I think Steve brings up an interesting issue, but the problem is so individualized, that it’s hard to solve it on a general level.

    I was living and working in The Hague this summer, and attending a really well established ward. The Dutch members were really strong. During my time there, there were probably a dozen men from Africa baptized in the ward. Now, I have no idea as to whether or not they were legall in The Netherlands, but the situation seemed to be great for everyone involved. The members were psyched about missionary work. The (very excellent) missionaries had plenty of opportunities to practice their teaching skills, these men were finding the gospel, and as the members themselves pointed out, when/if the new converts returned to their respective homes in Africa, they would bring the strength of having seen a functioning well established ward back to the church there. It was a tremendously uplifting situation.

    There is a Spanish ward in my stake here in Virginia. I think the stake benefits from service in the ward, and the stake leaders are always trying to integrate them into stake activities. (But granted, this is also a stake that tries to integrate my singles ward as well, so they’re operating on a celestial level!) :o)

    I can understand, however, how issues with immigrants in the church could become overwhelming. I’m just not sure that a general rule would serve the needs of those involved, without doing a dis-service to a huge population. The problem with leaving the issue vague is that similarly situated people are being treated unequally. Which is sad, and unfair.

  27. I think some church policies may make it harder for undocumented immigrants to be baptized. Take the “legally and lawfully wedded” spin on the law of chastity. It doesn’t allow recognition of many common-law marriage siatuations that are common among people without papers. Also, it doesn’t seem to be the only way to administer the law of chastity — after all, it’s very unclear how many of Joseph Smith’s wives, etc., could have been considered “legally and lawfully wedded” to him.

  28. I was pleased to baptize a number of undocumented aliens living and working in Southern California when I served there as a missionary. The Holy Ghost didn’t seem sufficiently perturbed by their undocumented status to choose not to communicate with them.

    Who was I to do so?

  29. I read the Jerry Johnston column in the Deseret News this morning and was struck by this excerpt:

    “When I see gay couples being wed in San Francisco, I don’t think about the implications of gay marriage. I scan the crowd to see if I recognize anyone.
    When I see photos of illegal immigrants being busted in raids, I look for recognizable faces.
    I seldom think in terms of issues. If I hold a position that brings pointless pain into the lives of people I care about, I’m perfectly capable of changing positions.
    Politically, that makes me pretty much useless.
    But religiously, it’s very useful.
    Martin Buber claimed religion really comes down to our personal relationships, that religion exists to help people connect with each other. Religion is to help us get beyond each other’s defenses — what singer Michael Kelly Blanchard calls our “heart guards.” All that matters is who we care about and how much we care. And those who believe love comes from God try to push that personal, one-on-one caring as far out into the world as they can.
    That’s my creed in a nutshell. My article of faith.”

    I thought this was an interesting parallel to our discussion of immigration. The way we recognize we are torn between good policy and personal concern. So what do you think of his point about being politically useless, but religiously useful?
    Intriguing to me….

  30. I am not sure if it is totally true. I think it is true as long as one’s religious views make them hesitant to impose their morals on others. If one feels an integral part of religion is helping others find universal “good” and avoiding “evil” pitfalls, it is less true. I think tension between these two extremes will always exist if one follows Christ’s admonition to “go [ye] into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”. Is imposing value based laws a form of preaching? I don’t think so, but it is hard to imagine anyone who has the desire to share the gospel, unwilling to see what they believe put into practice. Avoiding politics entirely seems too much like avoiding the issue and cloistering yourself in a nunnery. Sure you avoid causing others harm, but I think it omits too much. Personally I think our worry about ever giving offense, or being oppressive can definitely become counterproductive. Along similar lines I am not sure it is possible to completely separate church from state. No matter what, one institution or another will always end up functioning as a religion.

    One last thought. I think laws will always result in some people being oppressed, judged unfairly, or left out. The only way to have zero errors is to have no laws. Of course that leads to a whole new set of problems. Perhaps we just need to be more tolerant of the idea that things will never be perfect, and choices will always have some consequences we don’t like.

  31. Having just seen this post I thought I’d try to refute Matt Evan’s comment even though this topic seems to have been dead for a few days. I’m more interested in Greg’s meta-question (which Matt addresses) than I am in church policy. I _love_ the statement from the press office, non-sequiters and all.

    To me Matt’s rephrasing of the second sentence seems wrong. The church is clearly referring not to people using church doctrine to make up their minds about political issues but to people who use church doctrine to try to help other people make up their minds. When this is done in a public way it is destructive to political debate. Why? Religion is simply an impossible tool for making rational decisions of any kind. Religion has at its core a rejection of evidence that makes all kinds of arguments relying on religion end badly. In the end, it’s better for the church to pick particular political positions to endorse and to do it _without_ doctrinal justification, because then it can simply say this is revelation.

    Doctrinal justification of anything not strictly religious is precarious because the word justification implies that religion is something more like a set of laws than a set of stories. Of course, US law itself a bit closer to a set of stories than it likes to admit.

  32. Hello and welcome, Steve, and thanks for linking to your killer website. I am somewhat puzzled by your claim that “religion is an impossible tool for making rational decisions.” Isn’t this just a tautology? That is, are you just saying that you can’t use faith to come to a conclusion on an issue that requires reason? If so, how do you know which kinds of issues are amenable to faith and which are amenable to reason? In other words, how do you define the set of “strictly religious” issues?

    By the way, you’d be surprised how many legal theorists and even judges have no problem seeing law as a set of stories. And in a previous post, Nate suggested how the question of “what is Church doctrine?” can be approached analogously: (see his discussion of interpretivism).

  33. Thanks Greg and thanks for this, your killer website.

    I think your question is a good one although I’m not sure why my statement is tautological. Perhaps you could make that claim more explicit so I could respond to it.

    As to what issues are strictly religious I can best answer by analogy with mathematics. Mathematics is a closed system that has its own internal logic. It is impossible to use mathematics to prove anything outside of mathematics. One might find in mathematics a good model for a particular physical behaviour but choosing the correct mathematical model is not math.

    Religion is the same. It has its own internal structure, but since it makes no reference to evidence, it similarly is improperly used to convince. There may be a religious model that will correctly help choose the best policy toward enforcement of immigration law, but the fact that such a model exists in a religion is not a good argument for it. External evidence has to be provided for the model’s correctness. Religion has no convincing ability of its own because like mathematics it is self-sufficient.

    By the way, I think it is worth approaching the question of what is the structure of religion and when it tends to provide good models. There are certainly stories, and also revelations and I’ve had relatively productive experiences with finding good micro-models from both. But what are the questions where religion is likely to provide a good model and why is that?

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