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Arizona immigration law thwarting LDS missionaries
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jose Corral was seriously considering joining the LDS Church.

For weeks, Corral, 45, a fourth-grade teacher, met with missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at his home in Laveen, Ariz., to read The Book of Mormon and prepare for his baptism.

Corral, a Roman Catholic and the father of two preteen daughters, was especially drawn to the Utah-based church's commitment to family values.

"I was really interested," said Corral, a legal permanent resident from Mexico. "I thought, you know, it is going to be really good for the kids."

Then, Corral said, he found out that state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa and sponsor of Arizona's tough new immigration law, is a Mormon. Corral said he told the missionaries to stop coming because he considers the law anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.

"I decided I did not want to expose my kids to a religion that has members that hate other people because they are different."

Corral is not alone. The law, which makes it a state crime to be in the country without proper immigration papers, has tarnished the LDS Church's image among many Latinos, a huge group the church is aggressively trying to attract.

Pearce has been the driving force behind virtually every bill introduced in recent years aimed at clamping down on illegal immigrants. LDS officials say he does not speak for the church, which has not taken a stance on Arizona's law.

Still, it has put the church on the defensive.

Kenneth Patrick Smith, a Mesa lawyer and president of the Valencia Branch, a Spanish-speaking LDS congregation in the Mormon stronghold of Mesa, said missionaries from his church have had doors slammed in their faces since Gov. Jan Brewer signed Arizona's new law in April.

"They say, 'Why would we want to hear anything from a religion that would do this to the Hispanic community?' " said Smith, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the church. "It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only ... terrified but terrorized."

Pearce repeatedly has said his efforts to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and keep them from coming here is based partly on the LDS Church's 12th Article of Faith, which says Mormons believe in "obeying, honoring and sustaining the law."

The new Arizona statute makes it a crime to be in the Grand Canyon State without proper immigration papers. It also requires police to ask a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally. Critics say it could lead to rampant racial profiling and civil-rights abuses by officers targeting Latinos.

Many Latinos who view the new law as unjust and discriminatory blame not only Pearce but also the LDS Church. That is making it hard for Mormons to proselytize to the state's 1.8 million Latinos, whom the church views as key to future growth.

Smith said he already has seen the effects of stepped-up immigration enforcement and fears more to come when the law takes effect July 29.

"I deal with the aftermath of what happens when someone gets deported in the middle of the night or doesn't come home from work," Smith said. "I'm left to help with families and deal with the crying kids and their wives. It's devastating on these families when the dad doesn't come home."

Pearce did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story. He told The Salt Lake Tribune in an earlier e-mail that LDS scripture buttresses his push for a crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

"We have a special duty [to] this land, this republic and to the rule of law," Pearce wrote. "It is our duty and well established in scripture and modern revelation."

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, said in an e-mail that elected officials who are Mormons do not represent the position of the faith. She said the church also has not taken a position on immigration, which is "clearly the province of government."

"However," she said, "church leaders have urged compassion and careful reflection when addressing immigration issues affecting millions of people."

Some Latino Mormons would like the church to do more.

"I want the church to put a stop to him," said Celia Alejandra Alvarez Portugal, 30, a member of the LDS Aguila Ward in Phoenix.

Alvarez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, is in deportation proceedings after the landscaping business she worked for was raided last year by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies.

Arizona has one of the largest Mormon populations of any state. There are 381,235 Mormons in Arizona, according to the church, or nearly 6 percent of the population.

Proselytizing is a cornerstone of the Mormon faith. The church has trained Spanish-speaking missionaries to go out into neighborhoods to preach to Latinos and encourage them to join the church. The faith does not keep records according to ethnicity. But the number of Spanish-speaking congregations in Arizona has grown from a handful a decade ago to 51 today.

Nora Castaneda, 46, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has been a member of the LDS Church for 35 years, said several colleagues confronted her after the Arizona law passed.

Castaneda, director of secondary-language development at Phoenix's Creighton School District, recalls one saying, "It's somebody from your church who did this." Another, according to Castaneda, said, "Your [Mormon] brother did this."

She does not believe that Pearce's anti-illegal-immigrant stance is in line with the Mormon faith, which, in addition to teaching obedience to the law, teaches compassion.

"It is embarrassing to have to defend the church for the thoughts of one man," said Castaneda, a member of the Spanish-speaking Liahona Second Ward in Mesa.

In addition to making it hard for the church to reach out to Latinos, she said, the new law is causing some new converts to leave. "The husband of a woman [in her congregation] is not letting her go back to the church because he knows a Mormon made this law."

Jorge Pimienta, who oversees missionaries at the Valencia Branch, expects many Latino families from his congregation to leave. He blames Pearce.

"I don't know Russell Pearce," Pimienta said. "I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught."

Where the LDS Church stands

The LDS Church sends missionaries among undocumented immigrants across the country, baptizing many of them without asking about their citizenship status.

The Utah-based faith also allows them to enter Mormon temples and serve missions.

"We're not agents of the immigration service, and we don't pretend to be," LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland told The Salt Lake Tribune last year, "and we also don't break the law."

In January 2008, Marlin Jensen, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, was assigned by LDS President Thomas S. Monson to urge Utah legislators to use "compassion" in their immigration legislation.

Despite that plea, Utah's mostly LDS lawmakers adopted SB81, which took effect last July and tightened enforcement while limiting immigrants' access to some services.

The LDS Church has not taken a stand on Arizona's new immigration law. Spokeswoman Kim Farah said the faith also has not taken a position on the immigration issue, which is "clearly the province of government."

"However," she said, "church leaders have urged compassion and careful reflection when addressing immigration issues affecting millions of people."

Mormons in Arizona

381,235 » Members

88 » Stakes

690 » Wards

94 » Branches

4 » Missions

2 » Temples (three more planned)

Source: LDS Church, 2010 Church Almanac

Immigration » Latinos turning away after Mormon senator pushed measure.
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