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."
LDS Church leaders have had evolving policies on how to keep undocumented missionaries safe. But this is the first time Holland has heard of a missionary being arrested by immigration officials while serving.
"There's been an ongoing discussion of this for 15 years. These kind of incidents, or anything like it, would continue that discussion," said Holland, who is a member of the Missionary Executive Council. "We're always trying to do, always and forever, exactly what's legal, and in the spirit of that, be fair to everyone on the religious side, on the spiritual side, to have the spiritual benefits of [serving a mission]."
The reason, according to Holland, is simple.
"A mission is so fundamental to our blessings."
The LDS Church has changed its policies about mission calls for undocumented immigrants over time. Previously, they had to return to their country of origin for extended periods of time and then could serve. However, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, inserted language into a 2005 agricultural bill that absolves religious organizations of criminal liability for allowing their undocumented members to perform volunteer service, including mission work.
Church leaders do make certain accommodations for undocumented missionaries, including calling them only to missions within the United States. But leaders acknowledge the missionaries' potential legal jeopardy.
"They go knowing themselves that they're at risk, and nothing in our mission call changes that," Holland said. "They know that, and we know that, and we work within those parameters to have them be constructive, honorable, faithful, spiritual, religious emissaries for that period of service."
Sending undocumented immigrants on a mission, though, sends a mixed message, with the potential for "tragic" results for missionaries and their families, said Ron Mortensen of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration.
"What the church has done is taken care of themselves and left the individual in a terrible position," Mortensen said. "They say 'We'll give you these benefits, but, oh by the way, if something happens to you, sorry.' "
Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says this is one more example of why federal immigration reform is needed.
"You have kids who just have spent the two most important years in their lives now having to worry about being thrown in jail for not having proper documentation to get on a plane," said Kuck, a Brigham Young University graduate.
Holland says LDS leaders will continue to have discussions about making sure undocumented missionaries get home safely.
"Clearly we do take and always will take a great sense of responsibility for the safety of our missionaries in any part of the world."
Quote from the LDS Church
"Clearly we do take and always will take a great sense of responsibility for the safety of our missionaries in any part of the world. ... We're not agents of the immigration service and we don't pretend to be, and we also won't break the law. We didn't bring them here. We quite overtly discourage that."
Jeffrey R. Holland, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.