Arizona immigration law fallout harms LDS Church outreach

The Arizona Republic/May 18, 2010

José Corral was seriously considering joining the Mormon Church.

For weeks, Corral, 45, a fourth-grade teacher, met with Mormon missionaries at his home in Laveen to read the Book of Mormon and prepare for his baptism. Corral, a Catholic and the father of two preteen daughters, was especially drawn to the church's commitment to family values.

"I was really interested. I thought, you know, it is going to be really good for the kids," said Corral, a legal permanent resident from Mexico.

Then, Corral said, he found out that state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa and sponsor of Arizona's tough new immigration law, is a member of the church. Corral said he told the missionaries to stop coming because he considers the law to be anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic.

"I decided I did not want to expose my kids to a religion that has members that hate other people because they are different," Corral said.

Corral is not alone. The law, which makes it a state crime to be in the country without proper immigration papers, has tarnished the Mormon Church's image among many Latinos, a huge group the church is aggressively trying to attract.

Pearce, a devout Mormon, has been the driving force behind virtually every bill introduced in recent years aimed at clamping down on illegal immigrants. Mormon officials say Pearce does not speak for the church, which has not taken a stance on Arizona's law or the issue of immigration.

Still, it has put the church on the defensive.

Kenneth Patrick Smith, a Mesa lawyer and president of the Valencia Branch, a Spanish-speaking LDS congregation in Mesa, said missionaries from his church have had doors slammed in their faces since Arizona's new law was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in April.

"They say, 'Why would we want to hear anything from a religion that would do this to the Hispanic community?' " said Smith, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the church. "It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only . . . terrified but terrorized."

Pearce has repeatedly said his efforts to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and keep them from coming here is based on the Mormon Church's 13 Articles of Faith, which includes obeying the law.

The law makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without proper immigration papers. It also requires police to ask a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally. Critics say it could lead to rampant racial profiling and civil-rights abuses by officers targeting Latinos based on appearance.

Many Latinos who view the new law as unjust and discriminatory blame not only Pearce but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is making it hard for Mormons to proselytize to the state's 1.8 million Latinos, whom the church views as key to future growth.

Smith said he has already seen the effects of stepped-up immigration enforcement and fears more to come when the law takes effect July 29.

"I deal with the aftermath of what happens when someone gets deported in the middle of the night or doesn't come home from work. I'm left to help with families and deal with the crying kids and their wives. It's devastating on these families when the dad doesn't come home," Smith said.

Pearce did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City, said in an e-mail that elected officials who are Mormons do not represent the position of the church. She said the church has also not taken a position on immigration, which is "clearly the province of government."

"However, Church leaders have urged compassion and careful reflection when addressing immigration issues affecting millions of people," she said in the e-mail.

Some Latino members, however, would like the church to do more.

"I want the church to put a stop to him," said Celia Alejandra Alvarez Portugal, 30, a member of the LDS Aguila Ward in Phoenix. Alvarez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, is in deportation proceedings after the landscaping business she worked for was raided last year by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies.

Arizona has one of the largest Mormon populations of any state. There are 383,000 Mormons in Arizona, or nearly 6 percent of the population, according to the church.

Proselytizing is a cornerstone of the Mormon faith. The church has trained Spanish-speaking missionaries to go out into neighborhoods to preach to Latinos and encourage them to join the church. The church does not keep records according to ethnicity. But the number of Spanish-speaking congregations in Arizona has grown from a handful a decade ago to 51 today.

Smaller congregations are known as branches, and larger ones are called wards. Branches and wards are grouped geographically into stakes.

Nora Castañeda, 46, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has been a member of the LDS Church for 35 years, said several colleagues confronted her after the law passed.

Castañeda, director of secondary-language development at Phoenix's Creighton School District, recalls one saying, "It's somebody from your church who did this." Another, according to Castañeda, said, "Your (Mormon) brother did this."

She does not believe, however, that Pearce's anti-illegal-immigrant stance is in line with the Mormon faith, which, in addition to teaching obedience to the law, teaches compassion.

"It is embarrassing to have to defend the church for the thoughts of one man," said Castañeda, a member of the Spanish-speaking Liahona Second Ward in Mesa.

In addition to making it hard for the church to reach out to Latinos, the new law is also causing some new converts to leave, she said.

"The husband of a woman (at her church) is not letting her go back to the church because he knows a Mormon made this law," Castañeda said.

Juan Carlos Zazueta, a math teacher and member of the Liahona Second Ward, converted to the LDS Church when he was 11. He does not believe many longtime Latino members will leave the church because of Pearce.

But he thinks as many as half of the Latino families in his church will leave the state because they have a greater chance of having a family member who is undocumented be deported under the new law.

Jorge Pimienta, who oversees missionaries at the Valencia Branch, also expects many Latino families from his congregation to leave. He blames Pearce.

"I don't know Russell Pearce. I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught," he said.

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