McKay Coppins: McKay Coppins: The fierce immigration debate continues in Mormon communities

Published: Friday, July 23 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

In my column last week, I condemned the hateful rhetoric and inexcusable behavior that has permeated the debate surrounding illegal immigration, particularly in Mormon communities.

The debate has been especially fierce in these communities since last week, when government employees leaked a list of 1,300 alleged illegal immigrants, causing widespread fear within Utah's Latino community and prompting some extremists to threaten and harass people they believed to be undocumented.

I received roughly 100 e-mails in response to my column, which was unsurprising given the timeliness of this already controversial issue. What did surprise me, though, was the number of people who wrote only to express agreement and support. The vast majority of the e-mails I received – at least 80 of them, by my count – were written by people who shared my frustration with the tone of the immigration debate. (This is especially significant since it is almost always reversed: the people who disagree with me are usually the quickest to respond, while those who agree are more likely to stay silent.)

Many of these e-mailers said they have often cringed at the comments made by their fellow Latter-day Saints, but feared they would be shouted down if they expressed calls for compassion in the immigration debate. For those of you have shared this experience, I hope the response to my column emboldens you. If these e-mails are any indication, you are not alone.

Reading your responses made me realize the need for a follow-up column, partly to clarify my original points, but mostly to bring some of your thoughtful insights to light.

Was my column hypocritical?
Some of you argued that, given all my calls for compassion and tolerance in the immigration debate, I employed a pretty condemnatory tone. Indeed, using words like "hateful," "vigilantes," "self-righteous" and "cowards," I didn't shy away from the tough talk.

The difference is that I was not using these words to attack advocates of an immigration crackdown. In fact, my criticism was intended for everyone – regardless of their immigration stance – who uses this issue to spew vitriol. In last week's column, I condemned those who would threaten, harass or bully illegal immigrants without considering that they, also, are children of God. I could just as easily extend such criticism to liberals who smugly characterize all illegal immigration opponents as "racist" or "xenophobic."

My strong language was meant to condemn blind hatred and ignorance on all sides of this debate. I should have made that clearer in the first column.

The speeding ticket analogy
I wrote last week, "Those who indignantly cast stones at 'the illegals' for dishonoring the Twelfth Article of Faith should first make sure they've never received a speeding ticket."

Several of you pointed out that when someone receives a speeding ticket, they can go through the proper channels of restitution by paying the fine and moving on. Following this same logic, you argued, illegal immigrants must be deported or renew their visas in order to attain the same level of restitution.

From a religious standpoint, this is an idea worth considering. But, as one of you pointed out, the analogy might not go far enough. Being in the U.S. without documents is actually closer to violating the speed limit without getting caught. (Remember that neither are violations of the U.S. criminal code; they are civil matters.) I know plenty of Mormons who have broken the speed limit without a police officer noticing and had no trouble taking the sacrament the next Sunday.

My point here is not to say that we should all be fine with committing civil offenses. My point is simply that the indignant Latter-day Saints who accuse "the illegals" of being unethical, or somehow unworthy of gospel blessings, should maybe focus on the beams in their own eyes. (Again, that's not to say they can't advocate for strict immigration law enforcement; it just means they should do so without acting so morally superior — unless, of course, they really never have committed a civil offense.)

"Walk a mile in my shoes…"
Several of you made the incorrect assumption that I live in Provo, Utah, and have never experienced firsthand the consequences of illegal immigration. In fact, I have spent the majority of the past four years living in neighborhoods dominated by Latino immigrants. I served a Spanish-speaking mission in Dallas, working almost exclusively with undocumented immigrants. A year after returning from my mission, I got married, and we moved to a South Provo neighborhood where most of the people spoke Spanish as their first language. And currently, my wife and I are living in a Dominican community in Queens, N.Y.

Have I ever been inconvenienced at times by these communities of immigrants? Sure. Have I ever felt unsafe? I did a few times on my mission, though I have no way of knowing if the people who posed threats to my safety were here illegally. Have I ever lost a job due to illegal immigration? Not that I know of, but I'm not ruling it out as a possibility.

But all of these questions are irrelevant to whether we should show compassion to illegal immigrants. The fact is, our personal hardships (which may justify strong political views, but never justify hate) are nothing compared to most of the trials endured by most of these immigrants. They have escaped oppressive, corrupt and/or poverty-stricken countries, and the vast majority of them have no interest in stripping us of our rights or taking over the United States. Having met hundreds, if not thousands, of these undocumented immigrants, I can tell you that the majority of them are here to help their families.

And, regardless of our views on this complex issue, we all have to face the cold, hard fact that if we were in their shoes, we would undoubtedly hop a fence or overstay a visa if it meant delivering our children from the awful circumstances they were trapped in.

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