Editor's note: This commentary by Walker A. Wright is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought. Wright is the author of an expanded article on this subject titled “‘Ye Are No More Strangers and Foreigners’: Theological and Economic Perspectives on the LDS Church and Immigration,” published in BYU Studies Quarterly 57, No. 1 (2018).
As pressure on the Trump administration escalates to end the practice of separating children from their parents at the border, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has once again called for compassionate immigration reform aimed at keeping families intact.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long expressed its position that immigration reform should strengthen families and keep them together,” the church said in a statement released Monday.
“The forced separation of children from their parents now occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is harmful to families, especially to young children. We are deeply troubled by the aggressive and insensitive treatment of these families. While we recognize the right of all nations to enforce their laws and secure their borders, we encourage our national leaders to take swift action to correct this situation and seek for rational, compassionate solutions.”
The church as an institution has a strict policy of neutrality with regard to partisan politics, but, on occasion, the LDS Church speaks out on issues of moral significance. For the better part of a decade, the church's position on immigration has been marked by a call for balanced, humane and principle-based approaches — it's a call that's rooted in the church’s unique history, its scriptural canon and is well aligned with a growing body of economic research.
In 2010, the church publicly supported the Utah Compact, which said that “strong families are the foundation of successful communities,” and also publicly opposed policies unnecessarily separating families, an issue of immediate national concern.
More recently, the church announced its “I Was a Stranger” relief effort, coinciding with the Syrian refugee crisis and encouraging members to seek out and assist refugees in their local communities. And, earlier this year, the church released an official statement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, declaring that Dreamers “have demonstrated a capacity to serve and contribute positively to our society, and we believe they should be granted the opportunity to continue to do so.”
This echoed the church’s 2011 statement on immigration, which “supported an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship.” According to the statement, this is because “how we treat each other as children of God” is “the bedrock moral issue” of the Lord’s church.
A cursory acquaintance with LDS history and scripture shakes up caricatures of migrants by reminding the faithful that many revered prophets in LDS scriptures were themselves migrants. It’s easy to forget that the story of migration is the story of holy writ. God’s biblical people were often displaced and migrating, often due to persecution or war. Consider the exile of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s overland journeys, Jacob and his family’s famine-driven journey into Egypt, the Exodus, the deportations under the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jewish dispersions under the Greeks and Romans, Christ’s status as a refugee in Egypt and the early Christian scatterings.
The Book of Mormon contains similar accounts, detailing numerous mass migrations, including the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem to the New World and that of the Jaredites from Babel to the promised land. Even the early years of the LDS Church started with several interstate migrations (often due to local persecution and governmental hostility), from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois until the Saints’ eventual settlement in what was then Mexican territory (Utah). As recent events have revealed, it can be easy to assume the worst about migrants from a comfortable, settled position. However, the scriptures and Mormon people’s own history disturb any negative, simplistic ideas about the worth and dignity of migrants in God’s eyes.
Furthermore, one of the most prominent and consistent themes throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptural canon is the obligation to care for those in need. Included among the list of the disadvantaged classes in need of provisions and protection — widows, orphans and the poor — are also “strangers” and “sojourners.”
The biblical tradition warns God's people against “vexing” or “oppressing” the stranger. The book of Exodus reminds, “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As many scholars have noted, hospitality was considered one of the highest virtues in antiquity, and the violation of this virtue through the mistreatment of the stranger seeking refuge is given in the Bible as one reason for the destruction of Sodom.
It is, of course, well-established that LDS scripture also supports “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” as stated in the 12th Article of Faith. The church's 2011 statement on immigration specifically encourages its members to obey the law and refrain from “entering any country without legal documentation” or “deliberately overstaying legal travel visas.”
And, of course, Latter-day Saint history is full of examples where the Saints suffered due to a lack of local law and order. Early Mormon history also shows how a lack of federal accountability exacerbated local conditions.
Currently, in the United States, there are calls to reform the government's separation policy at the border. The president and members of Congress are huddling this week to hopefully find ways to change or reform the law. U.S. immigration is a broken system in need of repair.
The majority of U.S.-bound immigrants are allowed into the country based on family connections and work visas. In short, those without a college degree or a close family member in the country have effectively no legal way to come to the United States. Obedience to the law of the land is important to Latter-day Saints, but so is shaping law so it follows principles of sound governance.
Beyond religious and scriptural commitments, LDS statements acknowledge the positive economic impact of immigrants. The Utah Compact underscores the contributions immigrants make to their communities.
A 2011 meta-analysis by economist Michael Clemens found that dropping all current immigration restrictions would result in a doubling of world GDP. A more recent analysis corroborated these findings, concluding that lifting all migration restrictions would increase world output by 126 percent. Similarly, a 2013 study found that dropping all immigration barriers would result in an additional income of $10,798 per worker (migrant and non-migrant alike); doubling the income of the world’s most deprived.
Despite these economic benefits, many rich country natives worry that an overabundance of immigrants will make things worse. Some accuse immigrants of stealing native jobs, depressing native wages, undermining native culture and institutions, bloating the welfare state, and/or being criminals and terrorists. The vast majority of empirical studies, however, contradicts these arguments. Several large literature reviews — including two from the National Academy of Sciences and one from Oxford University — find that the long-term effects of immigration on jobs, wages and the fiscal budget tend to be neutral to slightly positive. Immigrants also assimilate rather well into their host countries and even appear to boost the economic freedom of their institutions.
Based on its unique history and suite of religious teachings, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints place special emphasis on welcoming the stranger. This has undoubtedly influenced the LDS Church’s principle-based position on immigration, which is informed by its highest moral commitments which are bolstered by modern economic perspectives that call for improving U.S. immigration laws.13 comments on this story
In 2011 the church stated that "The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved." The church called for "immigration reform" that adopts a "balanced and civil approach to a challenging problem, fully consistent with its tradition of compassion, its reverence for family, and its commitment to law." Seven years later, perhaps the United States is now ready to listen.
Walker Wright is an independent scholar and writer living in Denton, Texas. Wright is the author of “‘Ye Are No More Strangers and Foreigners’: Theological and Economic Perspectives on the LDS Church and Immigration,” which was published in BYU Studies Quarterly 57, No. 1 (2018).