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Activist delivers petition urging Mexico to curb LDS missionary visas

Published February 16, 2011 7:02 pm

Consulate • Goal is to pressure LDS Church to sign the Utah Compact.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Latino activist, urging the LDS Church to take a stronger stance against enforcement-only immigration bills, delivered to the Mexican Consulate on Monday a letter signed by more than 130 people that asks President Felipe Calderón's government to suspend visas to Mormon missionaries.

But a former LDS mission president in Mexico City doubts the Mexican government would take such a step, saying any effort to withhold visas from LDS missionaries would hurt Mexico more than the Utah-based church.

"It would be unfortunate if that happened," said John Pingree, who served as an LDS mission president in Mexico City from 1998 to 2001. "The American missionaries who go to Mexico come back as that country's greatest advocates. It would also hurt the relationship between the two countries."

Even so, Raul Lopez-Vargas, a former vice president of the community group Centro Civico, walked alone into the consulate's busy lobby in Salt Lake City and hand-delivered the letter and several other documents.

Jose Umburto Gutierrez, the official who received the papers, said he would give them to his superiors. Lopez-Vargas said he already has sent a copy directly to Calderón.

The activist said he's doing this to pressure the LDS Church to sign the Utah Compact — a document signed by more than 3,300 people who favor a compassionate approach toward illegal immigration. The church has endorsed, but not signed, the compact.

Lopez-Vargas also sent the letter in response to state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's enforcement-only immigration bill, which cleared a committee Friday in a 9-3 vote.

That measure, asking local police to enforce immigration law, has been a hot-button issue. The Orem Republican changed the language last week to no longer require that local police question the legal status under "reasonable suspicion" of people pulled over for class B or C misdemeanors.

Sandstrom, who is Mormon, has called the move to put missionaries in the middle of the immigration debate "unfortunate" and criticized the activist for asking the Mexican government to interfere in internal matters related to Utah.

"They are trying to pass bills that violate human rights," Lopez-Vargas said after delivering his letter, signed by more than 130 people who are largely undocumented and living in Utah.

Asked for a response to the delivery of the letter, church spokesman Scott Trotter referred to the Utah Compact and reiterated the faith's support of its principles.

When asked whether the church had urged the Mexican government not to disrupt the visa process, Trotter said, "our missionary visas have never been part of this issue."

The global church is heavily invested in Mexico, with 23 missions, more than a million members and a dozen temples. Along with the United States and Brazil, Mexico brings in the faith's most new members every year.

In the late 1990s, the church encountered trouble getting enough visas for its U.S. missionaries so a leader met with Mexican officials there and succeeded in increasing the number from about 1,200 to more than 4,800, Pingree said. That made it possible for his mission to have an equal number of Mexican and U.S. missionaries, he explained, and they worked well together.

Pingree has maintained close ties with Latter-day Saints in Mexico and believes the percentages have remained fairly close to what they were in his time there.

"The church has been so positive on immigration," Pingree says. "Why would Mexico want to punish it?"

dmontero@sltrib.com

Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.