I served my mission in the Spanish-speaking wards and branches of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The overwhelming majority of the people that I knew, taught, baptized, served, and loved were undocumented immigrants from Latin America. As missions often are, this was a life-changing, perspective-altering experience.
I was serving in Watsonville in 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered a path to residency for millions of undocumented workers. For about three months, our full-time job as missionaries—with the full support of the stake and the mission—was to help Church members negotiate the bureaucracy required to become legal residents. It was holy work, and I remain proud that I, and my Church, were part of it.
When I left the mission field nearly 30 years ago, I home two certain bits of knowledge—one political and one spiritual—that have conditioned my understanding ever since. First, I understood that immigration, documented or otherwise, is driven by economic laws inherent in our capitalist system. When there is a large supply of labor on one side of a border, and a large demand for labor on the other side, there will be immigration. Neither large walls nor armed guards will prevent people who need jobs from finding their way to a place where jobs need people.
The really important thing that I learned, though, is that separating people from the families they are trying to provide for is spiritually destructive–both to the people being separated and to the society insisting on the separation. This is a moral issue for all people, but especially for Latter-day Saints, who rightly proclaim that the family is the fundamental unit of spiritual life. When the 1986 amnesty was finally enacted, I was able to see the profound spiritual growth that came with the simple knowledge that a family would be together—both forever in eternity and for the foreseeable future in the United States.
As immigration reform again becomes a major issue in our politics, keeping families together must become a major focus of our religion. The LDS Church has been very clear about this in their public statements supporting the Obama Administrations efforts to reform immigration in ways that keep families together. A rare public political statement from the Church newsroom makes this crystal clear:
What to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now residing in various states within the United States is the biggest challenge in the immigration debate. The bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God.
The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved. This should give pause to any policy that contemplates targeting any one group, particularly if that group comes mostly from one heritage.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Church supports an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship.
In furtherance of needed immigration reform in the United States, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports a balanced and civil approach to a challenging problem, fully consistent with its tradition of compassion, its reverence for family, and its commitment to law.
This is why #TogetherWithoutBorders, the recent social media campaign by Latter-day Saints supporting the Church’s unequivocal position on immigration reform, matters. It matters a lot. It is an example of individuals within the Church fighting for a core value of their religion when most LDS politicians–who regularly invoke support of the Church’s more conservative positions to appeal to their constituents—have ignored the Church on this issue and joined with a nativist right just itching for another battle in their cultural war.
And the rest of us need to support these efforts too. Spiritually, the stakes are high. This is one of the very few contemporary political issues on which the Church has taken a clear and unambiguous stand. Another is same-sex marriage. One way to destroy families (we have heard over and over again in the past year) is to sanction alternative marriage arrangements that violate the laws of God. Another way is to separate parents from their children and use the coercive power of the state to keep them apart. Families need to be together, and defenders of the family need to make it a priority to defend actual families in danger of being torn apart.