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Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News
Thirteen-year-old Alicia Mendoza and cousin Benito Sosa practice for Mendoza's LDS baptism in Brigham City. About 30 percent of Latinos in Utah belong to the LDS Church.

Armando Solorzano likes driving into Centerville because the sign marking the city boundary notes it was founded in 1847.

"Yes," Solorzano says to himself. "This was created in Mexican territory. This is my place."

A University of Utah ethnics studies professor, Solorzano has deep-seated pain over Brigham Young's declaration — "This is the right place" — as Mormon pioneers arrived in what became the Salt Lake Valley nearly 160 years ago.

"I can't call them illegal immigrants because the term didn't exist then," he said. "But they were certainly trespassing on Mexican territory."

Only when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848 awarding present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah to the United States did Mormon pioneers gain legal status.

Solorzano says undocumented immigration becomes more relevant if taken from a historical perspective, adding it is not a new phenomenon.

"It is an American institution. It's part of the structure of our country. It's a pillar of our country," he said. "It is in the foundation of our own state."

Furthermore, Mormon polygamists fled to Mexico in the late 1800s to escape prosecution. They practiced plural marriage there contrary to Mexican law. Later, during the Mexican revolution, their children returned — undocumented, Solorzano notes — to Utah for work.

Undocumented immigration, he says, is "at the roots of our history, and it goes both ways."

Today, Solorzano sees the LDS Church as a magnet for illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. The Book of Mormon describes a group of people LDS doctrine professes to be their principal ancestors. Some archaeological evidence suggests the Aztec civilization migrated south from southern Utah, he said.

Latinos do not think of themselves as illegal immigrants, Solorzano says. "It doesn't matter if I go to my sacred land illegally or legally. What matters is my spirituality."

The LDS Church downplays its draw for Mexicans and South and Central Americans who come without documentation.

"My feeling is the state of Utah has been very friendly," said Elder John Pingree, who works with the church's Hispanic Initiative. "It's not necessarily the church."

He cites illegal immigrants' (former) ability to obtain drivers' licenses, health care, education and employment as more salient reasons. Elder Pingree also suggests friends and relatives already in the state have much to do with it.

About 60 percent of Latinos in Utah are Catholic, while 30 percent are LDS converts, according to Solorzano. He recently published a chapter on the history of Latino immigrants in Utah in a book titled "Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America."

The Catholic Church is among several denominations to espouse views on immigration policy. Noting it does not condone illegal immigration, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called upon federal policymakers to reform the laws to uphold basic dignity and human rights of immigrants and preserve family unity.

The Most Rev. George Niederauer, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, says the church does not, however, draw up legislation. "That is the work of the federal government," he said.

Bishop Niederauer noted hypocrisy in the mixed message the United States sends south of the border:

"We will do everything we can to keep you out, but if you make it in, we have a job for you."

The Catholic Church does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants in its parishes. It considers those who believe and live the faith as Catholics.

"We're not a branch of the U.S. government," he said.

The LDS Church has no formal position on illegal immigration. "We leave those matters to civil authorities," spokesman Dale Bills said.

"This isn't the church's issue," said Elder Pingree, who served as a mission president in Mexico City. "This is the government's issue."

Some Latter-day Saints question the church's baptizing converts and issuing temple privileges to members who are in the country illegally. Potential templegoers must avow to a bishop that they are honest in their dealings with others. Some members can't reconcile church membership and illegal status.

"It's not a problem for me," Pingree said. He made clear that immigration enforcement "is not the role of the church."

Church leaders do not ascertain potential converts' citizenship prior to baptism or temple attendance. They look for commitment to live the tenets of the religion, Pingree says.

The church, he says, does everything it can to encourage its members to stay in their home countries to strengthen local stakes and wards. "But once they're here, we want to make them feel like part of the community, a valued part of the community," Pingree said.

To that end, the church formed a Hispanic Initiative several years ago to help members adjust to life in America. It provides for English classes, helps fund a free health clinic and facilitates pro bono legal services through a law society.

"There's a huge unmet need in this community," Pingree said.

Solorzano applauds the church's efforts in those areas, but some things still gnaw at him.

As a native Mexican, he has trouble with the Mormon Battalion monument at the state Capitol. The statue commemorates the 500 Latter-day Saints enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War.

"That is a sensitive issue for us," he said.

Solorzano hesitated to bring up another sensitive issue but says after thinking about it for two years, he can't hold it in any longer.

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The state of Illinois formally expressed regret to the LDS Church last year for the expulsion of Mormons from the city of Nauvoo nearly 160 years ago. Solorzano says some Mexicans are waiting for the church to do the same for settling on their land.

"Somewhere in the back of Mexican people's minds, they fantasize about the idea that the LDS Church will apologize for taking the territory," he said.

Pingree didn't disagree that Mormon pioneers settled on what was Mexican ground. But that is now past.

"That's an issue that none of us is going to solve right now," he said. "So, let's get on with the future."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com