LDS missionaries: Undocumented immigrants walk fine line when spreading their faith

The Salt Lake Tribune/July 10, 2009

Cecelia Carmona has sent six children and a grandson to parts of the United States on two-year LDS missions -- all as undocumented immigrants. A year ago, the Salt Lake City single mom from Mexico completed her own 18-month mission in New York City.

For the first time, Carmona is worried.

Her latest missionary son is slated to return home next month, but his mission president in Pennsylvania still has not finalized the travel details.

Since April, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has scrambled to adjust its transportation procedures for undocumented missionaries after Jose Calzadillas was detained by Customs and Border Control agents at the Cincinnati airport for not having proper identification. He was flying home after a successful Mormon mission in Ohio.

To avoid such problems, the church has assigned undocumented prospective missionaries (who must declare their immigration status before serving) only to U.S. missions. Those missionaries likely will have to stay out of airports and arrive and leave by car, bus or train.

The arrest has had a "chilling effect" on Mormonism's Latino wards and branches, says a Chilean immigrant and returned LDS missionary named Jaime, who declined to give his last name because of his immigration status.

Other than for its missionaries, the LDS Church takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach toward the immigration status of its members. But some estimate between 50 percent and 75 percent of members in Utah's 104 Spanish-speaking congregations are undocumented. That includes many bishops, branch presidents, even stake presidents.

Despite LDS leaders' call for compassion in the formation of immigration laws, mostly Mormon lawmakers passed SB81, which took effect July 1 and tightens enforcement while limiting access to some services.

"This is creating a division among Latin LDS people here," Jaime says. "Many, many Latin people are now forbidding their sons from going on missions. All of this is affecting proselytizing for the church in our original countries."

In her ward, Carmona says through a translator, "people are very scared."

Lord's errand » The irony is, of course, that many undocumented immigrants came to Utah because of Mormonism.

A convert of some 25 years, Jaime arrived in May 2005, looking for financial stability and a warm embrace by fellow believers.

That fall, he joined more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking members at the LDS Church's "Hispanic Fireside" in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City. He was moved when one LDS authority asked, "Do you think it was economic problems that put you here?"

"No," Jaime recalls the man saying. "It was the Lord. The Lord put you here for his purpose."

That was "really important to us. We felt valued," he says. "Now we feel abandoned."

The church did not take a position on recent immigration legislation, which outraged Jaime and other LDS immigrants eager for their faith to defend them.

"The church could make more pressure on lawmakers," he says.

It's a balancing act for LDS authorities, given that many of the main opponents of undocumented immigrants also happen to be Mormon.

From that perspective, undocumented immigrants are violating church principles, especially the 12th Article of Faith, which says members believe in "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

"If they're undocumented, they are not legal," says state Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, a former LDS missionary. "If they are working, they are using another person's Social Security number. It is wrong."

Jenkins says he has compassion for undocumented immigrants. "We should feed, clothe and help them, but does that mean I should help them commit a felony?"

As to sending undocumented missionaries, the church "has been warned," Jenkins says. "The day the government starts cracking down on this, the church could be in a tough situation."

Gospel cause

Still, LDS authorities defend their political neutrality and policies.

"We're not agents of the immigration service, and we don't pretend to be," apostle Jeffrey R. Holland told The Salt Lake Tribune recently, "and we also won't break the law."

To that end, the church sends missionaries among undocumented immigrants, baptizing many of them without ever asking about their status. It also allows them to go to the temple and on missions.

"The blessings of the [LDS] Church are available to anyone who qualifies for and accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter says. "Federal law allows undocumented persons to provide volunteer church service, including missionary service, within the United States."

The LDS Church also is deeply involved in helping Spanish-speaking members integrate into U.S. society.

As part of the church's Inner City Project here, Rock Balstaed oversees about 70 couples who volunteer in Spanish-speaking congregations. They provide English classes and job training, as well as assess and assist with medical and dental needs.

Some LDS attorneys with the J. Reuben Clark Law Society also provide legal assistance when immigrants have disputes with neighbors of employers.

"These are determined, vibrant people, not looking for a handout; they're looking for an opportunity," Balstaed says. "These are families. They are not villains or criminals."

Double bind

It's especially complicated for those who came to Utah as infants or toddlers, says immigration attorney Rebecca van Uitert in Chicago.

Van Uitert, who is LDS, tells the story of a young man who was 4 when he arrived on America's shores. He grew up with his Mormon peers, listening to the same music, attending the same seminary classes and singing the same song about going on a mission when he grew "a foot or two."

But he always was aware of his otherness, she says. "He knew he wasn't supposed to be here and that it could all be taken away at a moment's notice."

The young man delayed his decision to serve a mission for a couple of years. The goodbye with his parents was heart-wrenching.

"I remember him sobbing, 'Should I do this or not?' " van Uitert says. "He knew he'd be putting himself at risk by going and knocking on doors. If he was deported and sent back to his country, he and his family could be separated forever."

Yet he couldn't refuse what he believed God wanted him to do. He felt it was a divine duty.

Van Uitert knows dozens of stories like this one -- and faith colors all of them.

"Oftentimes, people feel God tells them to come to Utah," she says. "They are fleeing violence or political unrest or poverty. God tells them this is the path, and the rest falls into place."

They get tourist visas and believe that wouldn't have happened if God didn't want them to come in the first place. Then they simply stay.

"I have learned to listen to the Spirit. When God tells me to do something, I do it," says Van Uitert, who is launching an oral-history program among Mormons to "document the undocumented."

"Why shouldn't they?"

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