Immigration arrest of missionary puts focus on LDS policy

Immigration » The church leaves the issue to individual conscience
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Jose Calzadillas spent two years serving his faith as a Mormon missionary.

He worked with the Spanish-speaking community in Ohio, spreading the word about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and doing volunteer work on his days off.

Those who knew him in the mission field describe him as kind and hardworking.

When he had completed his two years, he attempted to board a plane at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, only to be detained by Customs and Border Patrol officials for having improper documentation.

He had a hearing on April 22 in front of the Chicago Immigration Court and was released from custody, with a follow-up hearing scheduled Aug. 27.

The 24-year-old's arrest has sparked discussion among LDS faithful across the country, and many say now is the time for the church to take a stance on federal immigration reform.

The LDS Church publicly has supported in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants and pleaded for a compassionate approach when the Utah Legislature was debating its 2008 comprehensive immigration bill, SB81.

The Salt Lake City-based church has taken a don't-ask, don't tell position on membership for undocumented residents. And it supported a 2005 federal law amendment that gives churches legal immunity for having undocumented immigrants do volunteer service, including serving missions.

"We do want to be as responsible, as helpful, and certainly always as legal as the church must be to make sure they can give their service, which the law provides, have a religious experience, and feel like they're doing good," LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune last week. "We're not agents of the immigration service and we don't pretend to be, and we also won't break the law."

But church leaders have taken no overall stance on federal immigration law.

"The church does not have an official position on immigration policy, but encourages compassion in dealing with the complexities of immigration issues," said spokesman Michael Purdy. "The blessings of the church are available to anyone who qualifies for membership and accepts the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church will continue to focus on the spiritual well-being of its members while complying with the law. Immigration status is an issue left to each individual and the corresponding government authorities."

Without a clear-cut directive from church leaders, the LDS community in Utah and worldwide is increasingly fractured and the arrest of Calzadillas has intensified that schism.

"There are those who feel threatened by immigration and those who are connected to it and end up having to be sensitive. Both are confused, both are extremely frustrated and take it out on each other rather than asking the church to see what decision is it making," said Ignacio M. Garcia, a history professor at LDS-Church-owned Brigham Young University. "A lot of people are trying to find a way to bridge by faith what is a very difficult issue."

Garcia, though he personally hopes the church comes down on the side of compassion, says a firm stand on federal immigration law -- one way or the other -- is what is needed.

"There's a cost on coming down on either side, and I think the church knows that. But if you get past that, then we move on," he said. "If not, then we continue to be divisive."

Some LDS members are seriously questioning their faith as the church continues to recognize undocumented immigrants as worthy of baptism, temple entrance and missionary work while one of the faith's founding principles is to obey all laws, said Eli Cawley, chairman of the anti-illegal immigration Utah Minuteman Project.

"The risk that the church runs by supporting illegal aliens is the risk of alienating their own white membership," Cawley said.

Michael Clara, who serves on the High Council for his LDS stake on the west side of Salt Lake City, says the church has taken a clear stance on state immigration legislation and its overall attitude on the issue is self evident.

"Even if they didn't weigh in [on federal immigration reform], we don't need the church to say we need to practice Christian values," Clara said. "There is no scripture saying we have to check immigration status to make the determination to love our neighbors."

LDS missionary to appear again in court over immigration status

Jose Calzadillas, an LDS missionary completing two years of religious service in Ohio, was arrested by Customs and Border Patrol agents on April 8. The 24-year-old was detained in Kentucky's Boone County Jail until April 13, when he was transferred to Chicago. He had a custody hearing on April 22 in front of Judge Carlos Cuevas of the Chicago Immigration Court. He was released, and has another court appearance there on Aug. 27.