Immigration Divides Romney And His Church

Hispanic Mormons are torn. "Romney should listen to his church," says Salt Lake City's Yapias.

There's a saying among some Hispanic Mormons when it comes to Mitt Romney: "On Sundays he's our brother, but Monday to Saturday he's trying to deport us."

"As a Mormon, of course I would like to see a Mormon president eventually," said Salt Lake City immigrant advocate Tony Yapias, Utah's loudest voice in defense of illegal immigrants, who invoked the aphorism. "But Romney's not the one. Latino Mormons remember what he said publicly during the primary debates, and he can't change that now."

Yapias is hardly alone among Latter-day Saints in his distaste for Romney's immigration position, a fact highlighted in recent weeks as the ever-churning debate on the issue has come front and center in the presidential election. While Romney tried to add a layer of moderating nuance to his perviously hard-line rhetoric in a Thursday speech at NALEO, for many Mormons — Latino and not — the damage is already done.

On this issue, say his LDS critics, there's no escaping the fact that there's significant daylight between Romney's enforcement-first proposals, and the principles of the candidate's increasingly immigrant-friendly church.

Politically neutral on most issues, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dived headfirst into the immigration debate in recent years, carving out a firmly pro-immigrant stance. Last year, for example, the church offered a rare, full-throated endorsement of "the Utah Compact," a legislative resolution that discouraged deporting otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants, and offering a path to residency for families that would be split up by deportation.

The church hasn't specifically commented on any national policy proposals, said church spokesman Lyman Kirkland, but it "has published broad, foundational principles regarding this topic."

Among those principles, published in a statement last summer, is a call to "follow Jesus Christ by loving our neighbors. The savior taught that the meaning of 'neighbor' includes all of God's children, in all places, at all times."

The sentiment isn't contained to official press releases. The church-owned Deseret News has run a series of editorials calling for humane immigration reform, including a front-page editorial in 2010 accompanied by a photo of the Statue of Liberty and the inscription at its base: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Romney has sought to stress that he doesn't draw his political views from the Mormon hierarchy. Campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul referred questions on whether the candidate's immigration position was at odds with Mormon teachings to the church.

But on immigration, the church's position appears to be driven by a combination of values, history, and opportunity. Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, said many Mormons feel a special kinship with immigrants because of the church's own history.

"The most poignant stories of Mormon history are of earnest believers being violently chased from one settlement to another," Edwards said, adding, "That history clearly contributes to the empathy Mormons have for today's dispossessed."

There are other likely motives behind the church's public stand as well. As it continues to expand rapidly in Latin America — claiming more than a million members in Mexico alone — the Mormon Church has to be mindful of the interests of its global flock. And in the U.S., it has worked to battle negative stereotypes in the Latino community after one of its members, Arizona State Sen. Russel Pearce, championed a tough crackdown on illegal immigrants, making national headlines in 2010.

"What was happening was you would have [Mormon] missionaries have doors slammed in their faces because Pearce was a Mormon," said Yapias. "Latinos thought all Mormons were racist, all Mormons were anti-immigrant, all Mormons were anti-Latino. That's when the church started to get concerned."

Ricardo Rodriguez, 33, a Mexican-American from Dallas and practicing Mormon, said he doesn't detect any of his faith's Christian compassion in Romney's rhetoric.

"The Hispanic Mormons that I know are not voting for him," said Rodriguez. "We think it's cool that a Mormon is running, but when it comes to it, most Hispanics' main issue is immigration and they are going to vote for the guy with the best policy. Romney seems like he just wants immigrants to go away."

J.J Despain, a Mormon law student at University of Iowa, has been equally put off by Romney's views. After serving as a missionary in Argentina, Despain became ardently progressive in his immigration views, and is now exploring a career in immigration law. It's not an uncommon experience among Mormon missionaries, thousands of whom are assigned to serve in Spanish-speaking missions each year.

"For the most part, [missionaries'] views are going to change just by spending time with this population," Despain said. "A lot of these people have never met an immigrant, legal or illegal, until they go on missions. Once they make friends with them... they don't see them as a bunch of criminals, but as people who are just trying to make it."

By contrast, during the primaries, Romney blasted illegal immigrants, many of whom, he said, "walk across the border that have no skill, no education, and are looking for a free deal." The Republican has yet to articulate a plan for dealing with America's estimated 14 million undocumented immigrants, but for most of his candidacy he has focused primarily on enforcement. He favors building a high-tech fence to prevent illegal border-crossing, and supports requiring employers to check the legal status of all would-be employees.

In his speech Thursday, Romney dialed down the rhetoric, advocating a path to citizenship for military personnel, and promising to "reallocate green cards to those seeking to keep their families under one roof."

But many of his Mormon skeptics remain unconvinced.

"Perhaps when Romney is in Utah this weekend he could benefit from learning how Utahns have tried to put their principles into practice with a state-based solution that would allow undocumented immigrants of good will to come out of the shadows, keep their families intact, square themselves with the law, and contribute productively," said Edwards.

Or, as Yapias put it more succinctly, "Romney should listen to his church."