New Mormon leadership takes its first public stance, calls on Congress to make room for ‘Dreamers’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mourners cross temple square on their way to the Conference Center to pay their last respects to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson during his funeral service in Salt Lake City Friday, January 12, 2018.

In the first major policy statement under newly installed President Russell M. Nelson, the LDS Church urged Congress on Friday to act quickly to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” whose undocumented parents brought them to the United States as children.

In a news release posted on mormonewsroom.org, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called on lawmakers to “provide hope and opportunities” for the estimated 1.8 million Dreamers living in the nation.

“They have built lives, pursued educational opportunities and been employed for years based on the policies that were in place,” the Utah-based faith stated. “These individuals have demonstrated a capacity to serve and contribute positively in our society, and we believe they should be granted the opportunity to continue to do so.”

Mormon leaders noted that while “immigration is a complex and sometimes divisive issue . . . we believe that our first priority is to love and care for one another as Jesus Christ taught.”

While falling short of endorsing any “specific legislative or executive solution,” the church said it hopes “there is provision for strengthening families and keeping them together.”

Until recently, Dreamers were protected from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allowed them a legal pathway to attend school and work in the country. In September, President Donald Trump announced that he was rescinding the Obama-era program, which he saw as executive overreach, and shifting the responsibility for a solution to congressional leaders.

Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a Utah Latino advocacy group, welcomed the statement from the state’s predominant faith.

“This is very encouraging,” he said. “... We couldn’t agree more that [immigration policy] should be focused on keeping families together.”

Garza said his group was happy to have the LDS Church, which wields considerable clout in Utah, “calling on our congressional delegation to take leadership on this issue.”

Richard Jaramillo, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, saw the statement as a pleasant surprise, given the recently reshuffling of LDS Church leadership after the Jan. 2 death of President Thomas S. Monson.

“Really, I thought this would be an issue that would be outside [their attention] because of the recent transition on leadership,” Jaramillo said. “Having the LDS Church come out with this kind of statement should give political cover for members of Congress to finally do the right thing.”

Some observers had suspected the new Mormon leadership — Nelson and his counselors Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — would take a more conservative stance. This new governing LDS First Presidency has been in place for less than two weeks.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Friday’s statement ”had the approval of top church leadership.”

Bernardo Castro-Bernal, a Mormon Dreamer and former LDS missionary, was happy with his church’s stance, but wished it had come sooner.

“Maybe this is a change of tone [for the church] with the new leadership,” the 26-year-old Orem telecommunications salesman said.

Castro-Bernal, who served his LDS mission in St. George, said it likely would be encouraging, too, to other Mormon missionaries who are undocumented.

These prospective missionaries (who must declare their immigration status before serving) are assigned only to U.S. missions and have to stay out of airports and arrive and leave by car, bus or train.

Other than for its missionaries, the LDS Church takes a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward the immigration status of its members and potential converts. Some estimate between 50 percent and 75 percent of Mormons in Utah’s 100-plus Spanish-speaking congregations are undocumented. That includes many of the lay leaders.

According to an internal 2012 document, released by MormonLeaks, LDS leaders were told they have no obligation to ask or report an immigrant’s residency status. It further states that welfare aid should be divvied to undocumented immigrants as it is to all members as spelled out under church guidelines.

Ron Mortensen, a Utah Mormon and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, criticized the church’s statement.

“The church is only looking at one side of the ‘mercy-justice’ equation,” he said, specifically “mercy for the Dreamers.”

A longtime anti-illegal immigration advocate, Mortensen said studies have shown that most Dreamers held jobs before gaining DACA status. To land employment, he noted, they would have had to provide Social Security numbers.

“Illegal aliens cannot legally get a Social Security number,” he asserted, so “they use a fraudulent number. If they do so, they have committed multiple felonies — forgery, Social Security fraud, perjury and, in Utah, if that number belongs to another person, identity theft.”

“The church is looking only at the ‘mercy’ side of the equation and providing no justice for those victims of identity theft,” Mortensen said. “If the church was serious about combining mercy with justice, they would require DACA recipients to contribute to a victims’ restitution fund that their victims could draw on in order to recover their identities.”

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah and the Mormon daughter of Haitian immigrants, has been pushing for a DACA solution and cheered Friday’s statement from Mormon leaders.

“Strengthening and keeping families together is also of utmost importance to me, and I applaud their encouragement to seek a balance between compassion and border security,” she said in a news release. “I recently met with the president to discuss solutions about how to move forward on immigration and I look forward to having a seat at the table and working with my colleagues in the House on immigration legislation.”

Her Democratic rival in this year’s 4th District race, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, echoed that praise.

“Strengthening families is a core Utah value,” McAdams said, “and is reflected in the statement on the current federal immigration debate that was issued by my church leaders today, joining their voices with leaders of other faiths in Utah.”

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, a persistent pusher of immigrant rights, was happy to have the state’s biggest religion officially join the pro-Dreamers camp.

“The statement from our brothers and sisters at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a welcome reminder of our shared values as people of faith,” diocese spokeswoman Jean Hill said. “The Diocese of Salt Lake City is hopeful that our common desire to protect the vulnerable, preserve family unity, and promote human dignity will be reflected in the decisions of our congressional delegation regarding immigration.”

The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties of Union joined the chorus of supporters.

“Obviously, the church’s statement shows there is widespread, positive support for Dreamers here in Utah and across the country,” spokesman Jason Stevenson said. “This [statement] is a very positive development, and also reflects an increased sense of urgency to solve the issue.”

He said that, while it is true no Dreamers are currently being deported, many people don’t realize that “under the current legal limbo we are in [we are] losing the youngest of the Dreamers, those 15 years old who now cannot apply for protection from deportation.

“The church’s statement today,” Stevenson said, “shows they want to do something now that protects all of these young people.”

In its release, the LDS Church said that issues of immigration and legal status are “of concern for many of our members” due to Mormonism’s global presence and its history of members emigrating for religious purposes.

“We also acknowledge that every nation has the right to enforce its laws and secure its borders,” the church stated, “and that all persons subject to a nation’s laws are accountable for their acts in relation to them.”

The LDS Church has voiced its backing before for immigrants. It endorsed, but did not sign, the Utah Compact, a guiding document widely embraced by religious, business and civic leaders in the state that called for a federal solution with an eye toward compassion for undocumented immigrants.

“Families are meant to be together. Forced separation of working parents from their children weakens families and damages society,” the LDS Church website stated in 2011. “Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society. Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws.”

LDS apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then a member of the First Presidency and himself a two-time refugee, met twice (2013 and 2014) with then-President Barack Obama in the White House, where he lauded the Utah Compact as a “pillar” in the immigration debate.

In 2009, Mormon apostle Jeffrey R. Holland told The Salt Lake Tribune: “We’re not agents of the immigration service, and we don’t pretend to be. And we also won’t break the law.”

One of the LDS Articles of Faith states that Mormons “believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

For his part, Mortensen said the church is hypocritical when it baptizes illegal immigrants, “allowing them to continue to use stolen identities and to commit identity theft while holding the priesthood and receiving other ordinances of the gospel.”

“Part of repentance is you have to acknowledge your sin, stop doing it and have to make restitution,” he said. “If that was an American citizen committing identity theft, he would be told to stop his crimes.”

Azul Uribe’s beef with the church’s statement is that it “is way too little, way too late.”

The Mormon woman, who was brought to the U.S. as a child but then deported from Utah to Mexico in 2009, noted that Dreamers make up only 5 percent to 7 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Are their fathers and mothers and aunts and grandmothers to be deported, too?” she asked. “The worth of souls is great, and there is no prerequisite.”

Reporters Peggy Fletcher Stack and Mariah Noble contributed to this report.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks, Russell M. Nelson and Henry B. Eyring at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oaks was named first counselor in the First Presidency and Eyring second counselor.