‘Who would Jesus deport?’: Latter-day Saints protest ICE and poor treatment of immigrants

Michael Mangum | Special to the Tribune Claudia Loayza of South Jordan speaks to the crowd during a protest outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Salt Lake City Field Office in West Valley City, UT on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

West Valley City • A few hummed hymns under their breath and sang that “families can be together forever.” Some carried signs with scriptures about humanity and loving thy neighbor and mercy. One woman in the back of the crowd wore a T-shirt that asked: “Who would Jesus deport?”

On the holiday meant to celebrate their pioneer ancestors fleeing for asylum to the Salt Lake Valley — what was at the time (July 1847) Mexican territory — nearly 50 Latter-day Saints on Wednesday night camped outside of Utah’s biggest immigration center in protest.

“As a religion, we have a history of seeking refuge,” said Laurel Peacock. “We see immigrants as modern pioneers.”

The protesters called on their heritage in speaking against the inhumane treatment of refugees coming to America through the southern border. As Christians, many said, they had to take a stand.

During the demonstration, fireworks popped overhead and cars honked as they drove past on Decker Lake Drive. Some of the protesters pulled out lawn chairs and blankets, mirroring those who waited for the floats at the annual pioneer Days of ’47 Parade earlier in the day. And it was as much a commemoration as a confrontation.

“As a Christian, as an LDS woman and as a Latina, I think we need to remind ourselves of our principles,” said Claudia Loayza.

The peaceful protest was organized by a group of Provo women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of the speakers talked about how the Mormon settlers came here to get away from religious persecution and how the state has since welcomed immigrants.

They decried that the current administration has been hostile to those seeking similar refuge, separating families and holding young children at detention centers. So as the sun set, the protesters curled up to sleep on the cement sidewalks outside the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement building with foil emergency blankets to showcase what conditions immigrants are experiencing.

They planned to stay there until morning, when immigrant clients showed up to court hearings in hopes of staying in the United States.

Paola Severo has always avoided this building in West Valley City, where she fears that one day she or her parents might be sent. Severo, 16, was born here. Her parents were not.

“They left Mexico so they could have more opportunities,” she said.

Because of the color of their skin, though, she worries, they might be reported to immigration officials — even though they have the proper documents.

“We try to stay away from any situation that might be unsafe,” Severo said, her hands shaking as she held the megaphone to her mouth and talked to the crowd. “Sometimes it’s unnerving when I see police officers.”

But, Severo added, letting tears roll down under her sunglasses and onto her cheeks: “You cannot illegalize us.”

The LDS Church last year spoke out against the federal government targeting those seeking asylum. It said: “The forced separation of children from their parents now occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is harmful to families, especially to young children. We are deeply troubled by the aggressive and insensitive treatment of these families.”

The Utah-based faith has long voiced its backing for immigrants, too. 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 immigrants.

And its history of persecution, it has said, should stand as a guide to all members to act with kindness and be welcoming to all.

“There’s so many injustices happening,” Loayza added. “There’s no way we can call ourselves Christians if we don’t apply it universally.”

Jorden Jackson, the president of the Provo Women’s March, said some church members have felt hopeless and were unsure how they could help. She helped plan the demonstration on Pioneer Day as a way to “show the community that we welcome immigrants.”

“We want them here. We’re not OK with the inhumane treatment and border camps.”

Anna Salvania, also a member of the group, suggested: “LDS pioneers were also trying to find a safe place for their families.”

Many of those at the event, including Salvania, attend Provo’s Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church. Others are involved with the Utah Legislature, including state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who spoke about her own Mexican heritage and how her family was here before the Mormon pioneers. Everyone, she said, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Jessica Steele talked about how some members of her extended family are from Guatemala and not here legally; she worries about them every day. Saane Siale mentioned that her parents are from Tonga; she knows they wanted their children to have better lives and so they came here "not knowing a lick of English.”

“We have families that have dreams,” Siale said, trying not to cry. “We have families that need to come here now. Right now.”

As it got dark, the protesters munched on granola bars. A few said prayers. Melodie Jackson read a poem that she had written, pleading “Come ye saints.”

And the group crowded together in the dark under the stars and some posters that said, “Protect today’s pioneers.”