A call from the LDS Church for compassion on the issue of illegal immigration has many immigrant rights advocates hoping for a potential reprieve from legislators who are debating a large slate of bills addressing the issue.
Wednesday night "was a day many of us were waiting and praying for," said Tony Yapias, a Latino community activist in a statement. He was referring to a call by Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy that the predominantly LDS Legislature take a "more thoughtful, factual, not to mention humane, approach" to immigration policy and to "measure twice before they cut."
Jensen, speaking at a forum at Westminster College, emphasized that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn't taken a position on any particular legislation. He did say, however, that he was speaking on behalf of the LDS Church's governing First Presidency.
That statement came on the heels of a statement from the Alliance for Unity opposing HB241, which would repeal a law that allows qualified but undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Elder Russell M. Ballard, of the Quorum of the Twelve, is among community leaders who signed that statement.
The statements may not be as clear as, say, Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, who is part of a national effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform. However, advocates said their meaning should be easily interpreted by LDS faithful.
"It's not a bullhorn type of thing," Michael Clara, a Latino community advocate and a member of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly said of his church's leadership style. "We get the message, I'm just wondering why legislators don't get the message."
Clara said the church ministers and proselytizes to Spanish speakers worldwide, but he believes some of Utah's lawmakers are "out of sync with the doctrine of the church, with the practice of the church and the overall concept of Christianity."
However, lawmakers on Wednesday said they are living up to the church's call.
House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said lawmakers have taken a "very cautious approach."
He noted that last year there was hope for federal action, and while some illegal immigration bills passed in the House, none became law. But Congress hasn't acted on immigration reform, Clark said, and this year lawmakers are again considering many measures that they've seen before.
"They're just asking us to be deliberative in our process," Clark said. "We are living up to that."
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said that "they really want us to remember the human element" when debating the illegal immigration issue.
"These are human beings," Valentine said. "I do not see anything in his comment that says do not respect the rule of law."
Valentine said the laws being proposed are on a continuum, between reactionary and fundamental ideas "that we should be doing anyway," and lawmakers need to carefully consider their actions.
"That's where Elder Jensen's comments really come to play," he said. "Because we need to be compassionate but also remember the rule of the law."
For example, Valentine said the state should strengthen undocumented immigrants' driving privilege cards but not repeal them altogether.
Valentine's remarks came after members of the Utahns for the American Dream Coalition went to the Capitol to distribute information they hope will convince lawmakers to vote against HB241, which is pending a Senate hearing after the House approved it this week.
"These are kids who have gone to our high schools for three years," Valentine said. "In the end I may vote for (HB241). I recognize taxpayers are subsidizing it and these are people who cannot be legally employed."
David Ure, a former representative who sponsored the tuition law, was at the Capitol for the Utahns for the American Dream news conference.
"I think the church is trying very hard not to hurt the feelings of those who are championing this anti-immigrant cause," Ure said. Because Congress will eventually have to act on immigration, "it is very short-sighted to repeal this bill."
However, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, sponsor of HB241, said, "We can still be compassionate and enforce the law. ... I don't know if we're compassionate if we ignore the law and keep digging a hole for them."
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, is Senate sponsor of HB241, where the bill is awaiting a hearing.
"I don't think there's any lack of compassion," Dayton said. "I don't think anyone is rushing to judgment. This is a bill that's been discussed for five years."
Joe Reyna, who served on the Mexico Advisory Council of former Mexico President Vicente Fox, pointed to another aspect of Jensen's statement: that lawmakers' actions could have national and international implications.
Outsiders, he said, see Utahns and Mormons as synonymous. So, he said, a slate of laws seen as anti-immigrant or anti-Latino abroad could hurt efforts to develop international trade and bring in tourists.
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