Utah Rejects Arizona-Style Anti-Immigrant Politics

Utah has now positioned itself as a pioneer among states in the national movement for comprehensive immigration reform movement, thanks in large part to decisive and open influence by the LDS Church.

Last week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law a suite of immigration reform measures that would make it possible for undocumented residents to obtain a permit to work in the state of Utah by paying a fine and undergoing a criminal background check. The package includes elements that displease both the opponents of illegal immigration and strongest advocates of immigrant labor—including HB 497, which allows law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of individuals arrested for felonies and class B and C misdemeanors. But it is receiving national attention as a break with the spirit and method of Arizona’s now infamously punitive SB 1070, and similar measures in Oklahoma and Missouri.

LDS Presiding Bishop David Burton spoke at the signing ceremony to voice appreciation for the legislature’s work, a move that in its openness and publicity is viewed as a strong shift in political strategy by the Church, which often prefers to work behind-the-scenes. The Church’s top lobbyists reportedly spent 10 days on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City on the immigration issue.

Last November, the Church publicly declared its support for a “Utah Compact” designed by Utah business and political leaders identifying five principles to guide immigration debate. The Compact pushed for problem-solving at the federal level, discouraged the use of local law enforcement in profiling alleged “illegal immigrants,” opposed the unnecessary separation of families, and urged a simultaneously “humane” and “business-friendly” approach to immigration. The Church issued an additional statement urging comprehensive immigration reform to “balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws.”

These moves have been viewed as an effort by the Church distance itself from the hard-line tactics instituted by SB 1070 author Russell Pearce (R), who is LDS. Last summer, Latino Mormons in Arizona publicly raised their voices to decry SB 1070 as a contradiction to core tenets of the faith, including the Mormon emphasis on the sanctity of the family.

Some sources credit the large number of LDS men and women who have served missions in Latin America with creating greater empathy among Utah Mormons towards Latino immigrants. (A recent statewide poll found that 71% of Utah residents supported the guest worker permit provisions of the new law.) It is estimated that 50-75% (or more) of LDS Church members attending Spanish-speaking congregations in Utah are undocumented workers.  Some sources suggest that Latinos make up the largest proportion of converts to the LDS Church in the US.

LDS Church members report changes they’ve seen on the ground in the way the Church has moved over the last decade from counseling members in Mexico against immigration to adopting the equivalent of a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” on matters of immigration status in the United States. As I’ve written before here at RD, I see this as evidence that the LDS Church is showing a willingness to move away from the ultraconservative and nationalistic politics that have defined its multigenerational ethnic core as it embraces its global future.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.