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.