LDS faithful wrestle with illegal immigration
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 4, 2006
Richard de Uriarte
It is hardly surprising that the main sponsor of the Arizona Legislature's
get-tough immigration measure is the indomitable Russell Pearce, a state
representative from Mesa. Pearce has been the face of the anti-immigrant
movement across Arizona - co-author of Proposition 200 in 2004 and a vocal
proponent of putting both a fence and National Guard troops along the border.
But before that measure ultimately passed and was sent on to the governor,
several fellow Republican lawmakers rose in dissent, countering with a more
modest and less costly measure, one that didn't call for the state to finance a
radar fence along the border or pay for the National Guard. The alternative
legislation also dropped language making Arizona's undocumented immigrants
guilty of felony trespass.
Two of those who challenged the Pearce proposal within the House GOP caucus were
state Reps. Bill Konopnicki of Safford and Lucy Mason of Prescott who, like
Pearce, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In an arena in which political shorthand becomes etched in stone, Mormons in
Arizona have long been subject to a stereotype, an unspoken but well-established
caricature: hard right, Republican, usually East Valley, voting in lockstep,
with outsized influence within the state Legislature and in the Republican
But the stereotype is overly broad, masking significant differences among
individuals with varying life experiences, governing philosophies and personal
The controversy over immigration from Mexico has been vexing to several major
American religions, revealing ethnic fissures among Catholics, Protestants and
other denominations across America. This is not at all new in American history.
But disagreements among Mormons strike us as unusual somehow. The LDS Church is
a strongly structured operation, after all. As one member says, "If LDS
President (Gordon B.) Hinckley declared all men should wear lime-green striped
pants, I might find it strange, I might mutter to myself, but I would wear
lime-green striped pants."
The church itself has steered away from doctrinal pronouncements on immigration.
"On this immigration issue, we don't have clear doctrine," says Kevin DeMenna, a
prominent legislative lobbyist and LDS member of the Phoenix Biltmore Ward, a
geographic church subdivision. So individual "saints" can go their own way.
And as a result, striking differences in policy reveal themselves, for example,
between lawmakers here and those in Utah, where 70 percent of the population and
75 percent of the voters are Mormon. In Utah, for example, the Legislature
created a driving-privilege card last year so the state's estimated 95,000
undocumented immigrants could legally operate motor vehicles.
How could this be?
Those same Utah Republican lawmakers approved an in-state tuition rate for
non-citizens last year. Really. What gives?
Even with the increasing national political backlash, Utah laws and practices
remain rooted in a curious mixture of compassion and pragmatism compared with
Arizona, where citizens adopted Proposition 200 in 2004 and state lawmakers have
opted almost exclusively for punitive and restrictive measures.
But even here, Russell Pearce's is not the only LDS voice on immigration.
Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley says he is "baffled" by the strong
anti-immigrant positions of his fellow East Valley elected officials.
"I am opposed to criminalizing undocumented immigrants," he says. And he is
"concerned" about the current round-'em-up efforts of County Attorney Andrew
Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "They're not necessarily headed in the right
As an officer in the National Association of Counties, Stapley brokered a
bipartisan compromise resolution on immigration that won praise from Democrat
Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a visible immigrant rights activist.
And U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, who represents a large swath of the East Valley in
Congress, has taken what is arguably Arizona's most gutsy, or foolhardy,
position by co-sponsoring the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill in the House, with
its "path to citizenship." It earned him a Republican primary challenger in
Flake admits his bill, scorned as amnesty by critics, has made for some
uncomfortable moments at district GOP meetings. But he has no regrets.
"Ultimately, good policy is good politics," he says. "Sure, we need to enforce
our laws, but we need to have laws we can reasonably enforce. Some laws conflict
with the reality of the American economy. They need to be modified."
These contrasting visions of Mormons are anchored in the LDS faith, shaped by
personal experiences and political realities.
State Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, an ally of Pearce, explains her position in
clear, carefully reasoned phrases. "Obeying the law is a core principle of the
LDS Church," she says. "This isn't just a nice thought or a reasonable idea."
She cites the church's 13 Articles of Faith, one of which
states: "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and
magistrates, in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law."
That simple tenet, obeying the law, resonates among those LDS lawmakers like
state Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe. It strikes a chord with much of the American
public, as well.
But other spiritual sentiments tug at policymakers, especially Mormons like
Konopnicki, Mason, Stapley, Flake and St. Johns Democrat Jack Brown. The
church's worldwide proselytizing mission, for example, has won more converts in
Mexico and Latin America than on any other continent.
"My faith is at the core of my beliefs, and it dictates that we are all God's
children. We should not discriminate," Stapley says, adding that he has shied
away from the harsh, restrictionist policies. "It is not consistent with
biblical Scripture or the Book of Mormon." The book is the faith's companion
scripture to the Old and New Testaments.
Jeff Flake doesn't think his religion has much to do with his own views on
immigration. He harkens to growing up on a ranch in northeastern Arizona.
"We had illegals working on the ranch and farm. It wasn't against the law to
employ them at the time, and I would see them hide when the Border Patrol would
come." Back then, before the border turned to such a forbidding place, Mexican
nationals would come and go with the seasons and holidays.
"I've never been able to get angry at a father who crosses the border to feed
his family," Flake explains. "We have benefited from the immigrants who take the
jobs we would not do ourselves. We have allowed the situation to become what it
Utah isn't Arizona
Despite the superficial similarities of Arizona and Utah as arid, Western,
conservative, Republican-dominated states with large Mormon populations, the
contrasts on immigration are striking.
Arizona is nearly three times the size of Utah with an estimated immigrant
population five times as large. A half-million makes a larger footprint than
"It's like apples and oranges," says Mitch Menlove, director of government
affairs for Greenberg Traurig, a Phoenix law firm. "Check out the emergency room
at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake and compare it to a hospital here. Go to an MVD
office in Utah and then the one here at 28th Street and Washington Avenue here."
Indeed, minorities constitute no more than 16 percent of Utah's residents, less
than Arizona, even 25 years ago.
"It's easy to be tolerant in Utah, where the Latino population is relatively
small," Menlove explains.
But other factors play out, as well.
Kelly Patterson, a much-published political-science professor at Brigham Young
University, identifies the same philosophical dynamic over immigration that
tears at Arizona Mormons. "There's a tension within the faith between compassion
and tolerance . . . and the Rule of Law," he says.
But Patterson says many outsiders underestimate the pragmatism and
sophistication of Utahns. "People are surprised to learn so many residents here
speak two languages, have lived outside the country for an important portion of
their lives. The BYU program for studies abroad is one of the largest in the
What's more, "Utah officials are incredibly practical," Patterson says.
"They worry about bond ratings and the public purse." That makes Utah lawmakers
more susceptible to arguments, for example, that driver's licenses for all
motorists, regardless of national status, make the roads safer, more secure and
encourage more drivers to carry insurance. Likewise, as U.S. Sen.
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has concluded nationally with his Dream Act proposal, state
lawmakers figured if the sons and daughters of undocumented workers are going to
be here anyway, they might as well have the opportunity of a college education.
They are more likely to assimilate and succeed.
Utah's business-oriented practicality was on full display last week during an
official visit from Mexican President Vicente Fox. Fox was warmly received,
boosting trade before a crowd of 500 business, civic and religious leaders in
Salt Lake City. Fox met with LDS leaders and with a Hispanic group. He and Utah
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, an LDS member and a former missionary to Peru,
spoke in Spanish.
Julie Pace, a Paradise Valley attorney, says history links Utah and Mexico.
"When Utah became a state, the federal government imposed a condition that it
must outlaw plural marriages," Pace explains. Some of those families sought and
found refuge in Mexico. "Mexico allowed Mormon families from Utah to immigrate
to Mexico, practice their religion and lifestyle in a way that was not permitted
in the United States."
Pace, an immigration attorney who favors more liberal policies, says, "It is
ironic that today, the anti-immigrant movement here would break up family units
of Latin Americans."
Menlove, who grew up in Utah and has spent the past decade here, traces the
tolerance in Utah to the mission experience. "If they are anything like me, they
fall in love with the people, the culture, the language, the food," he says. "It
impacts their thinking for a lifetime." In Utah, you have thousands of adults
who have served in missions in Latin America.
That same affinity to Spanish-speaking countries exists among the saints in
Arizona, as well, though it is forbidden for Mormon missionaries to encourage or
even suggest emigration. Tracy Watson, president of the Arizona Mesa Mission
here, expects to gain 850 to 1,000 converts in his mission in any calendar year,
he says. Of these, about 23 percent will be Spanish-speakers. And of the 155
missionaries he oversees here in Arizona, roughly a third of them, 51 serve in
"By tradition and nature, Hispanics are a spiritually minded people, and they
have a respect for things of God," Watson says. "There is a hunger among them
for a rock-solid faith. My missionaries don't have a hard time getting into
Headlines here and across the country shout division and rancor. The newspapers
are filled with stories of coyotes, drug mules, electrified fences, military
troops, prison beds and buses loaded with brown-skinned deportees.
Day-to-day realities at the workplace and in the church pew suggest social,
economic, religious and personal ties being weaved everywhere. Eventually, these
ties will force new accommodations, even in Arizona.
Arizona is not Utah. The teeming numbers of immigrants attracted to and absorbed
by our state's construction, landscaping and tourist industries would overwhelm
Salt Lake City.
No state, no nation, can accept every immigrant who wants to come and work here.
It is absolutely right that U.S. officials have some sense of who lives here.
The failures in visa and immigration laws, especially those designed to stem the
flow, have contributed to much of today's worst problems. They need to be fixed.
In doing so, Utah's more welcoming attitudes and pragmatic policies, guided in
no small way by its LDS leadership, offer a policy alternative at once more
hopeful and rational.
Richard de Uriarte is an editorial writer and can be reached at