A sticky wicket: the Church and illegal immigration

From the Salt Lake Tribune comes this, well, awkward article for the Church:

The arrest of an undocumented immigrant returning last week from his LDS mission has sparked discussion at the highest levels of the church about how to limit such exposure in the future.

“With the known realization that those risks exist, then we want to do better, or at least learn more,” LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, said Friday during an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune . “We want to be more precise, if we can, about how to help, how to make [a mission] the calmest, most spiritually rewarding experience for everybody.”

Early last week, a missionary was detained at the Cincinnati airport for “lacking necessary documentation to board his flight home,” according to Michael Purdy, LDS Church spokesman.

That triggered fears in the undocumented LDS community in Utah, and already prompted a change in how one Utah missionary returned home. The young man, a Salt Lake Valley resident, completed a mission in Oklahoma and was scheduled to return home two days after church leaders heard of the unrelated arrest in Ohio. The mission president contacted local Utah church leaders, and it was decided the missionary’s uncle would drive out to Oklahoma to bring the missionary home, which he did.

The travel department of the church has to rethink everything. Things have changed, and they need a whole new policy,” said a local church official who was aware of the situation. “With ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] hitting them at the bus terminals and airports, this opens a whole new discussion. I don’t know how many undocumented immigrants we have serving missions, but I’m sure this is going to repeat itself.”

The subject of the Church and proper immigration documentation comes up on a regular basis, given that the Church has missionaries in roughly 150 countries. But this is here in the United States, and it involves calling young men and women who are here in the US illegally to serve missions.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this practice. My own mission (Central America Mission, 1974-74) covered four countries — Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama — plus the Canal Zone, then US territory under lease from Panama. (We couldn’t actually proselyte within the Canal Zone itself, though we could teach Zonians who were referred by members, etc.). If I had been found without the proper visa at any time in any of those countries (outside of a few days’ slack when leaving), I would have at best been deported or escorted to the border. At worst, I would have been thrown into jail or prison — and believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted to spend time in any Central American jail or prison in the early 70s.

The varying laws in those countries limited how long missionaries could stay in a given country. For example, in Panama, my visa was only good for three months. So at the end of three months, I had to take an all-day bus ride from Panama City to the Panama-Costa Rica border, get a short-term visa to enter Costa Rica, walk across the border, spend the night in Costa Rica, get a new Panamanian visa in the morning, walk back into Panama, and then take an all-day bus ride back to Panama City. In at least some (and I believe all) of the countries, you had to show an outbound airline ticket before you were allowed to enter the country. And in Nicaragua, before you could leave the country you had to go to a police station and get what was called a paz y salvo — a document that showed you still had a valid visa and weren’t currently wanted for any crimes or lawsuits.

I know that all this juggling was a headache for the mission president. In addition to all the various visa length restrictions (3 to 6 months), some countries had restrictions on who they would let in. Honduras wouldn’t allow any missionaries from El Salvador because the two countries were still technically at a state of war with each other over a soccer game. (No, really.) Panama would only allow missionaries from the US; Panama was far and away the richest country in Central American, and they didn’t want missionaries from nearby countries to stay behind when their visas expired and, well, immigrate illegally.

Still, our mission presidents (Pres. Hunsaker, followed by Pres. Eager) worked carefully to stay within those laws and to act quickly when a problem arose . I spent the last three months of my mission in the mission office, during the transition between presidents, so I was fully aware of all the immigration problems and issues, and the efforts to deal with them.

Back to present day and circumstances: I think the Church is creating a difficult legal situation for itself by continuing to call illegal immigrants to serve missions within the US. This is far more than a problem with a missionary having a lapsed or perhaps questionable (e.g., student) visa; this involves young men and women who are here in the US illegally from the get-go and who are subject to arrest or detention (and possible deportation) at any time.

Thoughts?  ..bruce..

17 thoughts on “A sticky wicket: the Church and illegal immigration

  1. What I don’t understand is how right there in the AoF it says that we believe in following the laws of the country we live in, and yet the church is cool with sending illegals out on a mission? WtH???

  2. Sorry, Bruce, aside from agreeing with you that it’s sticky and that most nations have detailed (and not always logical) laws regarding border crossings, I have to disagree with you. Young men wanting to serve missions are generally not those who have broken US law to sneak over the border in the last year or two. The vast majority are those who were brought here by their parents — the ones who are responsible for breaking the law — when the potential missionaries were children not in control of their movements. They are illegal, but they are not at fault, and there is very little they can do to regularize their situation. Would you suggest that a teenager voluntarily go back to the country of his birth, which he hasn’t seen since he was, say, three years old, knows no one, and has no means of supporting himself — which is generally the reason his parents left — and expect that young boy to survive, maintain his church ties, and save money for his mission?

    Under those circumstances, how do you justify barring such young men from serving missions?

  3. Ardis, I couldn’t disagree more. We can’t allow ourselves to break the law when it becomes inconvenient. Yes a person may be in a troubling situation through no fault of their own, but that does not give them the right to ignore the law.

    Besides, the Church has resources in many countries around the world. It may be illegal for them to stay in the US, but that does not mean there is nowhere else for them to go, and it does not mean they must go somewhere the Church is not. Staying in the US illegally is not their only option.

  4. Who’s this “we” you speak of, Yakko? You have a mouse in your pocket?

    As a pedestrian, I thank you for never endangering my safety by ever stopping a fraction of an inch beyond the stop line at a crosswalk, or rolling ever so slowly through a right turn on a red, or driving a fraction of a mile per hour over the speed limit. We simply can’t allow ourselves to break the law when it becomes inconvenient, you know, and I’m glad to have provoked a response from a perfect person.

  5. I know this Elder. He left his mission from my stake. He is an absolutely WONDERFUL person.

    That aside, this is an incredibly difficult situation and issue. I’m commenting fully over on BCC (Sorry, Bruce.), but my main point is that the Church CAN’T turn itself into an organ of the US Government. It is a GLOBAL organization that happens to be headquartered in the US. It simply must leave these issues of compliance to its members and not get involved in any way with the legal issues – except at the local level where people do all they can to help where they can.

    Citing the 12th Article of Faith is easy, but nobody who does so also advocates turning in everyone they know who breaks a law of some sort – or turning themselves in every time they break a law of some sort. It’s always framed in terms of “seriousness” of the law being broken, and the Church simply can’t start making those kind of distinctions. It can’t become a governmental agency; it must remain a religious organization – operating within the law, but not seeking to enforce it for any particular government and not establishing its own hierarchy of law.

  6. So, the answer is, “We don’t want them. Someone else will accept them. Send them there.”


    Members need to stop seeing the Church as an American institution. It’s not.

  7. Look, I apologize for my snark, Yakko. But obviously you are wrong, because obviously we (the Church, as represented by its highest governing bodies) have made, and repeatedly announced, the decision to treat all those who unite with the Church as fully accepted members, regardless of their immigration status. Such persons can be and are baptized, called to service in positions of all kinds, from at least stake high councilman down, and obviously including full-time missionary. They receive temple recommends; their tithing is credited to them.

    They are not treated as inferiors within the Church, and the Church does not presume to be agents of the government in identifying, apprehending, or punishing such members.

    No less a personage than Elder Holland in the quoted article says you are wrong.

  8. By the way, before things get too heated in here, I will point out that I said nothing about the membership of said individuals or their standing in the Church, nor would I presume to. I fully understand why people come to America, legally or not, and I’ll also point out that my sister’s married surname is Rivera.

    My concern is entirely about the legal impact on the Church as an institution, somewhat here in the US, but particularly in other countries.

    For the past 40+ years, the Church has managed to get itself into a growing number of countries specifically by pointing out the 12th Article of Faith and D&C 58:21 to those governments. This is why, for example, the Church was able to build, dedicate, and operate a temple in East Germany while it was still part of the Soviet Union. I suspect it is likewise why the Church can still operate a mission and a temple in Hong Kong since Hong Kong was handed back over to the People’s Republic of China. It remains a major factor in gaining official (or unofficial) recognition in countries where the Church has not previously been allowed.

    As I suspect most of you know, the Church has on-going problems with getting visas for missionaries to serve in countries other than their own. To the extent that this practice of having missionaries serve in the United States who are not here legally becomes widely known, that could jeopardize the work in many other areas of the world. ..bruce..

  9. Bruce, I understand that, but the Church can correctly point out that it actually IS obeying the law of ALL countries by keeping these missionaries here – NOT sending them into other countries.

    Iow, it’s not breaking ANY law ANYWHERE in what it is doing – and it can show that to other countries.

  10. Yes, Bruce, that’s the sticky part of it. The Church isn’t breaking any law by calling missionaries to serve within a country where they already live — but by privately acknowledging their illegal status in modifying the standard missionary program (not calling them across borders, perhaps using transportation methods that don’t trigger documents checks), the Church appears to be complicit in the individual elders’ illegalities.

    Here in Utah, a 2008 state law authorizes (it stops short in ordering) all state law enforcement departments to function as immigration agents to track and apprehend illegal immigrants. One after another, police departments and the Highway Patrol have announced their formal rejection of the law, refusing to serve as ICE agents. They do this not because they want to promote illegal residency, but because they realize the risks faced by all Utahns in general and illegal immigrants individually increase dramatically if they do: if immigrants can’t report crimes to police because they fear deportation, then it’s open season for criminals of all kinds to victimize anyone who looks Hispanic. If illegal immigrants refuse to come forward when they have knowledge of criminal behavior or whereabouts because they fear deportation, then any of us — not just illegals — risk having crimes against us go unsolved and unpunished. If illegal immigrants are afraid to seek medical care, public health suffers. And on and on.

    Evidently the Church feels somewhat the same way as the Salt Lake City PD feels: they can’t fulfill their greater mission of ministering to individuals and operating the Kingdom if they are forced to take formal notice of immigration status. Illegal immigration may be a crime, but the Church apparently doesn’t consider it a sin.

  11. I frequently saw this occur when I lived in South Florida. In fact, I currently know of quite a few missionaries serving in the US, who are not in this country legally. My opinion tends to lean towards the side that says whether or not you agree with the law, it’s a law, and you should do your best to follow it. I can sympathize with those whose parents brought them here when they were too young to know, but many of my friends were teenagers or older when coming to the US for ‘vacation’. Even though the immigration process is difficult, costly, and time consuming, it does exist and I believe it should be followed.

    That being said, I do have an interesting story from my mission in 2000-2002 in South America where we ran into similar issues, but with US Citizens being the illegals. For an American to obtain a visa was a difficult process, and thus, long before my mission, church leaders decided to allow missionaries to stay in the country using the 90-day vacation visa. This required a quarterly trip to the border similar to the above mentioned. After a few of these trips, border patrol became so lax that they only required the passports to be brought for stamping, and not the missionaries. Then they went another step further and just decided to give one of the extra passport stamps to a church administrative official. Why they agreed to take it, is beyond me. Eventually, that particular stamp was reported missing, and customs officials were told to be on the lookout for that particular stamp.

    I’m not sure how long this went on, but as I look through my passport, there are quite a few stamps from during my mission when I was not in possession of my passport (they were kept in the mission office and regional church headquarters for the duration of my mission). This story really began to unravel while I was serving in the mission office, and heard that four missionaries had been thrown in jail while trying to board a plane to return home from their missions. The reason? Having their passports stamped by a stolen stamp. We (the office elders, along with the regional church administrators) had to spend the next few weeks testing out different border crossing spots, and getting all the foreign missionaries out of the country via smaller, more lax, airports, boats, etc. so they could apply for longer term religious visas in the embassy offices of nearby countries. After that, everything was on the up and up as far as visas were concerned, but I was surprised to have seen it get to where it did.

  12. One other related issue — the Church, in ‘raising the bar’ on missionary service, has not only set higher moral standards and qualifications, they appear to have become a bit more stringent regarding physical and psychological issues. In so doing, they are prohibiting from missionary service young men and women who are fully qualified from a moral and spiritual sense but have impediments or problems that the Church feels should not be dealt with on a full-time mission.

    To quote from Elder L. Tom Perry in General Conferences a few years ago:

    The bar was raised by the leaders of the Church, and now the minimum standard for participating in missionary work is absolute moral worthiness; physical health and strength; intellectual, social, and emotional development. In every high-jumping competition there is a minimum height at which the competition starts. The high jumper cannot ask to start at a lower height. In the same way, you should not expect the standards to be lowered to allow you to serve a mission. If you want to be a missionary, you must be able to clear the minimum standards.

    My question is: why wouldn’t legal standards apply as well?

    Back in the mid-1990s, long before the Church “raised the bar”, our oldest son became active again and wanted to go on a mission. However, he had a criminal record, a single instance of stealing surplus equipment from his employers during his period of inactivity. He had to finish his probationary period and otherwise get everything cleared up before he could turn in his mission papers.

    Now, I do understand the difference between a conscious criminal act (such as stealing) and being brought into the US by your parents as a child; one is a conscious sin and the other is no fault of your own and one that you may be unable to remedy. But, again, I think the Church has been putting itself in a very difficult position both domestically and internationally by allowing those who are in the US illegally to serve full time missions. ..bruce..

  13. Wow, such animosity. Not sure what I said that deserved that.

    If I speed, I am breaking the law, and it’s likely I will get a ticket. Doesn’t matter whether I’m on personal or Church business. Likewise, if a missionary is in a country illegally, they are breaking the law. This is not an acceptable situation.

    This doesn’t have anything to do with saying a person is somehow less than worthy or less than a person because their visa status is in question. I’m not sure where you got that. What I’m saying is that it’s in everyone’s best interests (the Church and the individual) that all legal matters are settled before (and maintained during) a mission takes place.

    I suppose you could choose to read that as “denying someone the opportunity to serve”, but only if they choose not to obey the law…

  14. Out of curiosity, what rationale does the Church have for holding missionaries passports in the mission office anyway? Isn’t that rather dangerous in an emergency?

  15. Why doesn’t the Church put as much effort into immigration reform that makes sense for those brought here as children, for example, as it does on other issues? The LDS here in CA are known for being as hardcore in their anti-immigration and pro-ICE enforcement stance as they are against marriage. If word gets out about this, it will only make things worse for the Church in places like CA. The Church is seen as very hypocritical for going full force against gay marriage when things like abortion that cost lives are doctrinally handled but left alone politically. Actually aiding and abetting law breaking for institutional gain won’t go over well.

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