In late 1839, Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead the cause of the people of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saints were seeking asylum in Illinois after having been driven from Missouri.
Approximately one year before Smith’s and Higbee’s trip, the Latter-day Saints had surrendered to Missouri troops after Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs issued orders that “Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”
After pleading their case to President Martin Van Buren, he infamously responded: “Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” Missouri’s treatment of the Latter-day Saints, and President Van Buren’s cowardly reluctance to help them, are each shameful chapters in American history.
The Latter-day Saints would eventually leave Illinois after facing persecution there that culminated in the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, by a mob into whose hands the Governor of Illinois had “left them,” according to Brigham Young.
The rest of the story is well-known. Brigham Young led the Latter-day Saints west, and they settled in what is now the state of Utah. The territory was technically still part of Mexico when they arrived in 1847. It officially became United States territory the following year, upon signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Today, like Latter-day-Saints nearly 200 years before them, thousands of women and children are fleeing Central America and seeking asylum in the United States. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s representing some of them at the South Texas Family Residential Center as part of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, alongside a dedicated and diverse group of volunteers, including my friend and fellow Utah attorney, Engels Tejeda.
Under any circumstances, I would have found these women strong and inspiring, and their children bright and hopeful. That they possess these qualities is stunning given the persecution they suffered before leaving their home countries, and the harrowing journey to make it to our borders. We would be lucky to have them as part of our communities, where they could teach us a great deal about priorities, perspective and resilience. We would be sentencing some of them to lives of suffering, persecution and death were we to send them back.
We face enormous challenges at our border. We need to have a serious conversation about immigration policy, which is complex and multivariate. That conversation would be difficult in a neutral political environment; it seems nearly impossible right now, when too many of our leaders have trivialized the issue by reducing it to an unhelpful binary – “wall” or “no wall.”
Wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we should start by agreeing that laws should be based on sound policy, which leads to a simple question: When people arrive on our doorstep and petition us for asylum, what do We the People believe our government should do? But first, policy should be based on fundamental principles and shared values, which leads to the essential question:
Who are We, the People?
Does Van Buren’s response Joseph Smith reflect who we are? No! We value treating others the way we would wish to be treated. And before you roll your eyes, remember that the Golden Rule is a powerful, universal principle. Much of its strength is rooted in its simplicity, and using it to address immigration policy is not simplistic.
We should treat the women and children in Dilley the way we would want to be treated. We should put ourselves in their tattered, worn-down shoes and ask ourselves “what would I have done under those circumstances?” And if their cause is just, we should do for them what we would want done for us.
We can do better. We must do better. We owe it to the women and children in Dilley, Texas (and elsewhere). We owe it to the memory of our ancestors. And we owe it to ourselves.
Steven Burt works at Vivint Solar, Lehi, as associate general counsel. He is grateful to the company and his family for supporting his trip to Texas.