On a recent Sunday, a group of Latinos gathered outside a Mormon Ward house in Saratoga Springs, Utah. One of them said, “Brothers we need to support Mitt Romney because he is Mormon.” Jose Montero, a Latino and Mormon convert, quickly stepped into the conversation, “but you have not followed the news my brother. His position is against immigration.”
Montero, a man who speaks as passionately about politics as he does his faith, understands that there is a conflict for many Latino Mormons, who are the fastest growing segment of the church. Montero has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past, and agrees with Romney on many social issues. But he feels that Romney’s immigration policies do not reflect the values of his Mormon faith.
After Jose spoke up about some of Romney’s comments regarding immigration, the others joined in, agreeing with Jose, and quieting the “brother” who supported Romney.
“He is being a politician, not a Mormon,” says Sandy in accented English. Sandy, who only wants her first name used, is a Mormon convert of 13 years who runs a cleaning business. When she first converted, the church offered to send members to her house to help her learn English. She attended services in Spanish. Soon, Sandy will soon kiss her 18-year-old son goodbye when he leaves for a two-year mission. Sandy adds, “Mitt Romney’s immigration views are not in line with the gospel, which says everybody is equal and to help our brothers and sisters.”
Some 16,000 LDS missionaries are serving in Latin America and their converts are changing the face of the church. It’s been projected that the majority of Mormons will be Latin American by 2015. Many of these new converts come to the United States to find a safe haven within the church, whether they are documented or undocumented. “I’ve been taught you take care of members. We stay out of the legal aspects of it and just help – [undocumented immigrants] are our brothers and sisters so we take care of them,” says Rita, who only gave her first name. Her grandfather sold everything he owned in Mexico to bring his family to the United States. “We [as Mormons] are not here to judge people who wish to come here illegally; we are here to make their lives better.”
Montero surmises that the majority of some Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations are undocumented. “There are leaders in the church that are undocumented, and men who have served missions,” he says.
The Mormon Church has taken a don’t-ask, don’t-tell position for undocumented members. In 2005, it supported a federal law amendment that gives churches legal immunity for having undocumented volunteers. However, since 2009, when undocumented Mormon Jose Calzadillas was detained by Customs and Border patrol agents on his way home from serving his mission in Ohio, Mormon missionaries without documentation are now being assigned to state-side missions.
Romney the hardliner
“Christian values transcend laws,” says Montero. “This is being forgotten by politicians who profess they have a given faith.” Montero is referring to Romney’s assertion that any immigration reform that offered a path towards citizenship would be tantamount to giving amnesty to illegal immigrants. Romney has suggested “self deportation” as a solution to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, saying they would “decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here.” Such an idea is the brainchild of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is advising Romney. She drafted Alabama’s immigration law, which make it so immigrants are unable to drive or work, rent a home or get higher education or health care. Romney is not just posturing for primary voters. As governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and strengthened the authority state troopers had to enforce immigration laws.
Romney attacked Newt Gingrich for advocating that long-time illegal immigrants should not be separated from their families. He called Gingrich’s view a “policy of amnesty.” This debate prompted Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) to question Romney’s view in light of attacks he’s endured on his Mormon faith, stating to the Los Angeles Times: “Being subjected to intolerance like that about his own religion, to me you would think he would be, in terms of his policies and in terms of his positions, would take a more tolerant view, like what Gingrich was trying to promote.”
For Mormon immigrants like Rita, Romney’s “self deportation” solution sounds cruel. “A lot of us sacrificed everything to get here legally and illegally,” she says. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you fix your papers?’ And look down on them—but it can take a long time to get documentation and with the circumstances in Mexico, people are just desperate to get out of there.”
There are many Latino voters in the Southwest and West, in states that have yet to hold Republican primaries. Romney seems to be betting instead on anti-immigrant Republican primary voters.
In the Book of Mormon
Mormons themselves are far from united on the issue of immigration. Russell Pearce, a Mormon Arizona state senator, was the
lead sponsor of Arizona’s tough anti-illegal immigration law. In an NPR interview, he stated that “I believe in the rule of law.” In Utah, Mormon state legislator Stephen Sandstrom also cited the “rule of law” when proposing a similar immigration law there.
This concept is enshrined in Mormon doctrine. One of the 13 Articles of the LDS faith proclaims the importance of “sustaining and honoring” the law. Mormons on both sides of the immigration debate see their position supported by their faith. Last spring, an official church statement aimed for a middle ground. It said that undocumented immigrants need to “square themselves with the law.” But it also implied the need for compassion, cautioning that “the history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern, especially when race, culture or religion are involved . . .”
“The bedrock moral issue emphasized in the statement is how we treat each other as children of God,” stated Quin Monson in a Salt Lake Tribune article. He is an associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. “It doesn’t say the bedrock issue is protecting borders.”
Some Latino Mormons feel there are other Mormon values more important than respecting “the rule of law,” like the Church’s emphasis on families and caring for the needy. Hilda Sandy, a devout Mormon, shakes her head at Romney’s “two faces—what he’s been taught and what he is saying.” She will cast her vote elsewhere. Others, like Rita, believe he will return to the compassion of his Mormon faith once elected. “Right now, he may be being a politician first,” she says, “but he is also one of us, and I hope in the end he has our morals and standards and carries forth with what we’ve been taught—to love one another.”