LDS leader's arrest puts spotlight on immigration stand
A local Mormon leader is being held in a Utah County jail awaiting deportation after federal authorities arrested him and his family nearly two weeks ago for being in the country illegally.
Felix Callejas, an LDS branch president in Draper, oversaw a congregation of about 100 and was picked up by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agents April 19 after a failed attempt to obtain legal asylum from his native country of El Salvador.
The arrest, made public Friday, thrust The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the spotlight on an issue that has become controversial for the 14-million member faith headquartered in Salt Lake City.
Church officials would not directly answer questions about Callejas on Friday, with spokesman Scott Trotter saying, "This case reminds us all of the need to address immigration reform."
Callejas on Friday remained jailed on a no-bail ICE hold in a detention facility in Spanish Fork, but his wife and two children an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son were booked and released and are under ICE supervision.
The agency is making arrangements for their removal, ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said.
But a member of the LDS branch, who asked not to be identified, said Luca Margarita Castillo de Callejas and the two teens were "in hiding and are scared." The branch member said he considers Callejas a good friend but hasn't heard from anybody in the immediate family since the arrests.
"We can't find them anywhere," the member said. "Facebook, phone nothing."
But Callejas' son responded via a Facebook message with a request for privacy.
"I will say that I am grateful for the support that my family, friends and branch members have been giving me and my family and hope this situation gets resolved soon," Felix Callejas Jr. wrote. "We love this country and the many opportunities we as a family have received during our time here."
The branch had a sizable Latino population, and the removal of its leader has left it largely rudderless for close to two weeks. It is now being steered by a first counselor. A new branch president is expected to be named Sunday. The branch president, equivalent to an LDS bishop but leading a smaller congregation, oversees everything from the spiritual needs of its members to running meetings.
Haley said Callejas' wife had been ordered deported by a federal immigration judge in 2008. The rest of the family had been ordered deported in 2009.
Haley said all had filed appeals with the Board of Immigration Appeals, which dismissed their cases earlier this month.
Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said there are two ways to seek asylum: an affirmative asylum claim and a defensive asylum claim. Without speaking to specifics about the Callejas case, he said defensive asylum can only be sought when a person is in the middle of a deportation proceeding and is within the jurisdiction of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Affirmative asylum is sought through USCIS and can be requested within a year of being present in the United States.
The arrest is another high-profile immigration-related case that has put the LDS Church's stance on display.
Debate over immigration has been a divisive one among Mormons, with some siding with church leaders' in emphasizing compassionate treatment that keeps families together while others insist the faith's admonition to obey the law of the land should prevail.
Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, has been critical of the church for endorsing legislation born of The Utah Compact including a guest worker bill criticized by some as amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He wrote a paper outlining his view that the church has been instrumental in supporting legislation that favors illegal immigration. He said the arrest of Callejas puts the church in an awkward position of appearing to reward those who flout the law.
"We've now had a branch president and missionary arrested and it's a big problem out there for them," he said. "The church has to acknowledge they are baptizing people who come here illegally, commit crimes like identity theft and now they have to openly explain why they do it."
The church has publicly acknowledged its policy of proselytizing and baptizing undocumented immigrants, and even calling spiritually worthy ones as missionaries or local leaders.
"The blessings of the church are available to anyone who qualifies for membership and accepts the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church will continue to focus on the spiritual well-being of its members while complying with the law. Immigration status is an issue left to each individual and the corresponding government authorities," church spokesman Michael Purdy told The Salt Lake Tribune in a 2009 interview.
The statement was in response to the arrest that spring of an undocumented Mormon missionary coming off his two-year service in a Spanish-speaking community in Ohio.
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland explained at the time that "We're not agents of the immigration service, and we don't pretend to be, and we also won't break the law."
Cherilyn Eagar, an outspoken critic on illegal immigration, said the church's willingness to look the other way on the legal status of members in their branches, wards and stakes shows "the issue is rampant."
The church, however, held fast to its position on the issue by reiterating its values on immigration.
"As we have stated, we believe any [immigration reform] solution should include the following three principles: The commandment to love thy neighbor, the importance of keeping families intact and the federal government's obligation to secure its border," Trotter, the church spokesman, said.
Quin Monson, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said the arrest puts a brighter glare on the already hot issue.
"I don't know if one case is enough. It sounds pretty gut-wrenching to me, and if it's drawn out for a long time, it would evoke real emotions," he said. "If you get a number of these types of situations, it's not anonymous or faceless anymore."
Lee Davidson contributed to this report.
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