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The principles were hardly new: neighborly love, strong families, personal accountability. But the context was.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took its strongest stance yet on illegal immigration Thursday, calling on lawmakers in Utah and beyond to take a humane and comprehensive approach to reform while warning against any actions that would separate families.
"Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society," the church wrote in a statement. "Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion and the observance of just and enforceable laws."
The message comes as a godsend to some Mormons and a disappointment to others as Utah politicians contemplate new legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants.
"This is one of the things that myself and my Latino leaders for years have been praying for," said Tony Yapias, a Mormon and director of Proyecto Latino de Utah. "I'm very emotionally moved by what the LDS Church has just done."
Bill Barton, a former state senator and coordinator of the anti-illegal-immigration group SaveUtah, doesn't see the statement as an all-out victory for opponents of stricter immigration laws. He notes that the church's statement also admonishes people to obey the law.
Enforcing those laws, he said, doesn't mean that families have to be torn apart that deportees have to leave their children in the United States when they return to their home country.
"Whatever we do, it has got to be done with compassion and it has to be done carefully," said Barton, a Mormon. "If we get tough on illegal immigration, there is going to be less of it in the future. If we are soft on it, there is going to be more of it in the future. At some point, we need to draw a line."
The LDS Church took its stand Thursday after a coalition of civic and religious leaders gathered at the Capitol to sign the so-called Utah Compact detailing principles that should be part of immigration reform.
The LDS Church was conspicuously absent from that signing. But it issued a statement immediately afterward, adding its support for the compact as a "responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform."
The compact calls for a federal fix to immigration reform and urges Utah leaders to avoid policies that would unnecessarily separate families; that would redirect police resources to the prosecution of civil, rather than criminal, offenses; and would sully Utah's reputation as a "welcoming and business-friendly state."
The LDS Church, in turn, emphasized three principles of its own:
• Love thy neighbor: "The Savior taught that the meaning of 'neighbor' includes all of God's children, in all places, at all times."
• Strengthen families: "Families are meant to be together. Forced separation of working parents from their children weakens families and damages society."
• Observe the law: "Every nation has the right to enforce its laws and secure its borders. All persons subject to a nation's laws are accountable for their acts."
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, acknowledged Thursday that the church's statement appears targeted at his immigration bill, patterned after a controversial crackdown in Arizona. But Sandstrom, who is Mormon, said he doesn't feel "conflicted" about continuing his push.
"I swore an oath to uphold the laws of the land," he said. "That's all I'm doing. I'm upholding the laws."
Although Sandstrom plans to meet with Mormon leaders to discuss the statement, he said church officials have given other LDS officeholders such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. latitude to pursue policies they consider prudent.
"They've never told him to publicly cease and desist," he said. "I just don't see them telling lawmakers, 'Cease and desist.' "
Yapias argues that the church has sent a strong message that could lead some Utah lawmakers to reconsider Sandstrom's plan. But is the message really as strong as Yapias suggests?
Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University, doesn't think so.
The church's decision not to sign the compact reflects its continued "timidity" to engage in the immigration debate, Garcia said, and may suggest a lack of consensus among the LDS hierarchy about where the church should stand.
"It is a good statement," Garcia said, "but it isn't going to change much."
The only change, he said, will come when the church decides to devote the same kind of resources and leadership to immigration as it did to the Proposition 8 campaign against same-sex marriage. At this point, Garcia said, "church leadership is not yet willing to go there."
Rock Ballstaedt, an inner-city LDS service missionary who helps Spanish-speaking Mormons, says the church's reluctance to involve itself more publicly in the immigration debate says less about its timidity than it does about its role as a worldwide church.
"The church is trying to not be a policymaker," Ballstaedt said, "but to encourage those who have that responsibility to deal with immigration in a humane way."
Ballstaedt, for one, considers the church's statement "an impressive step in the right direction." He hopes it represents "a turning of the tide to a more realistic approach" to immigration reform.
Yapias holds out hope for the next step: A word from the faith's prophet.
"Maybe next time," he said, "we will have President [Thomas] Monson address the issue."
Tribune reporter David Montero contributed to this story.
LDS statement what it says
As a worldwide church dealing with many complex issues across the globe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotes broad, foundational principles that have worldwide application. The church regards the declaration of the Utah Compact as a responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform. It is consistent with important principles for which we stand:
• We 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.
• We recognize an ever-present need to strengthen families. Families are meant to be together. Forced separation of working parents from their children weakens families and damages society.
• We acknowledge that every nation has the right to enforce its laws and secure its borders. All persons subject to a nation's laws are accountable for their acts in relation to them.
Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society. Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion and the observance of just and enforceable laws.
Source: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints