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.
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.”
“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 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.