WASHINGTON — Congress has a window of opportunity to approve common-sense immigration reform and should act, faith leaders, including President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Tuesday after meeting with President Barack Obama.
"The president mentioned in our conversation in the Oval Office he would not use executive orders through the summer because he hopes Congress can find a solution," President Uchtdorf told the Deseret News. "Executive orders aren't permanent. A law can provide a comprehensive, common-sense solution.
"I think there is a window of opportunity now."
Obama and the faith leaders, not always allies, found common ground in immigration reform and the need for it to come from Congress rather than the White House.
"It was good to be with them," President Uchtdorf said of the other leaders. "In many ways we sometimes disagree, but on this matter, common-sense immigration reform, we all agree. We hope the gospel principles of faith, hope and charity will apply to any solution."
That agreement is unique among American religious communities, another leader who attended the meeting said at a news briefing afterward.
“For the first time we have in this country the entire religious community — Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Baha’i — all the major denominations and churches and religious bodies of this country believe that it is a moral imperative that we get immigration reform done,” the Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a nonprofit law office and Hispanic Christian network serving immigrants.
“It is the first and only political issue in this country where we all agree.”
President Uchtdorf shared key points from the 2010 Utah Compact, something he did a year ago in a similar meeting with the president and other faith leaders. At that time, he called the compact a pillar of federal immigration reform.
Tuesday, President Uchtdorf shared the principles behind the compact, which he called a "very responsible program of common-sense immigration reform."
"Our principle, I declared to the president, is that we love our neighbor, which means we love all people, in all places and at all times," President Uchtdorf said. "One of the core values we stand for is families. The separation of families (in U.S. immigration policy) isn't helping."
President Uchtdorf is a citizen of both Germany and the United States, "and I'm proud of it," he said. He said he twice was a refugee during World War II in Germany as a boy and understands the hardships many immigrants face.
He reiterated the important place border security has in the Utah Compact and the LDS Church's stance.
"One of the major pillars is the right to bring and enforce laws, using the rule of law, that enforce our borders," President Uchtdorf said. "First we need a just and caring law balanced with the values and principles that we love our neighbors, that families stay together, and enforce just and compassionate laws."
Role of faith
Bishop John Wester, Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, hailed the meeting, which didn't include a Catholic representative.
"We're absolutely pleased the meeting took place and pleased other faith leaders like President Uchtdorf are working with the president and pushing forward immigration reform," Bishop Wester said.
The Catholic Church is working with Obama and Congress on comprehensive immigration reform, said Bishop Wester, who serves on a Vatican committee on immigration called the Pontifical Council for Migrants.
Bishop Wester was in Washington last month and met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is out of the country this week.
Faith leaders who don't always see eye to eye with Obama continue to do so on this issue.
"The president was warm and kind," President Uchtdorf said. "In many ways, we don't always agree with this administration, for instance on marriage and other issues. We very much agree on immigration reform."
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, made a similar statement after the meeting, according to ABC News.
“I disagree with the president on many things, including life, marriage, religious liberty, HHS mandate," Moore said. "This is one of those issues that isn’t a red-state, blue-state divide. Most people agree, across the religious spectrum and across the political spectrum, that our immigration system is broken so we need to have a system that respects the rule of law, secures the border and finds a way forward for this country.”
A White House statement after the meeting says, "The faith leaders shared with the president stories about the impact the failure to fix the immigration system has on families in their congregations and communities."
"I thought what the religious leaders brought forward was important and timely," Bishop Wester said. "People, particularly families, are suffering because of our lack of reform. Religious leaders are stressing that time is of the essence. The problem is very human, very real, and real people are suffering. There is a real urgency."
The urgency extends to Congress. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill. Obama asked the faith leaders to help push a bill through the House.
"I'm convinced the people of the United States are willing and want a solution," President Uchtdorf said.
He encouraged congressional leaders to seek compromise.
"Sometimes 'compromise' is used almost as a bad word,"President Uchtdorf said. "Sometimes we have to find ways to compromise."
He said he and the other faith leaders agreed a solution is necessary now. He asked political leaders to work out the details.
"We hope they are mindful of Christian values and don't block those values because different political sides cannot agree on a solution that would bless so many families, individuals and the entire country."
A solution won't be easy.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, released a statement Tuesday that says, “We could make progress on immigration reform tomorrow if both parties could agree to approach it on a step-by-step basis — ensuring incremental reforms are implemented properly and operated effectively.
"The overwhelming majority of Congress agrees on the need to secure the border, improve enforcement and modernize our visa system. Once these long overdue changes are well and truly in place, we can discuss the best way to handle those who are here illegally — and do so in a compassionate way, while respecting the rule of law. Sadly, a small group in Congress believe the only way to do anything is to do everything all at once — regardless of whether or not it is effective, compassionate or humane. That is the major impediment to accomplishing the reforms we all agree on.”
Like President Uchtdorf and the other leaders in Tuesday's meeting, Bishop Wester is hopeful.
"We're hoping our leaders can get together and get the job done for us," he said. "It demands leadership, boldness and courage. We're really praying that'll happen for our people."
In addition to President Uchtdorf, the Rev. Cortes and Moore, the other faith leaders present at Tuesday's meeting with Obama were:
Rev. Noel Castellanos, CEO, Christian Community Development Association, Chicago
Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent, The Wesleyan Church, Fishers, Ind.
Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Atlanta
The participants also included Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, and Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.