While standing outside the Grdešić family homestead in Golek, Slovenia last fall, I reflected on my great-grandmother’s departure from the six-family village more than a century ago on a one-way journey that would take her and her husband-to-be to the small Slovenian community in Calumet, Michigan. Like most American families, mine is full of immigrant stories. I am here today because hardy Slovenes, Germans, Chileans, African-Americans, and Québécois endured slavery, long ocean crossings with spoiled beef, toil in copper mines, and the inevitable immigration hassles in order to create a new life for themselves and their families in the United States. As I listen to voices on all sides of the current immigration debate, I have struggled to stake out a position that incorporates the sacrifices of my immigrant forebears, my religious values, my diplomatic background, and my experience as an illegal worker in Italy.
Both the Jewish and Mormon communities have been heavily influenced by immigration. Thousands of Mormon converts from England, Scandinavia, and other European countries flocked to Mormon communities in the 19th century at the request of church leaders, and many of their descendants have held prominent church positions. Today the LDS Church’s policy is to encourage members around the world (we’re in 176 countries and territories) to build up the church in their own countries; the decision to immigrate is theirs alone. A good example is Mexico, where the church has constructed 12 temples (where sacred ceremonies are performed) and nearly 1,000 chapels (places for weekly worship) and other buildings to meet the spiritual needs of over 1 million Mexican Mormons. In this country, Mormons on both sides of the immigration debate invoke religious principles to buttress their case. Nevertheless, the LDS Church has repeatedly stated its neutrality on this subject, most recently in 2008 when it encouraged Utah legislators debating an immigration bill to do so with “humanity and compassion.” It also had this pointed response to former CNN commentator Lou Dobbs’ allegation that the Church was encouraging Mexican members to come to Utah in any way possible: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has over a million members in Mexico. It does not encourage them to move to Utah or anywhere else. The Church, in fact, has made no comment so far on the immigration debate.”
One of my church assignments is to serve as the advisor for a Spanish-speaking ward (congregation) in Santa Monica. It is by far the most spiritual ward in our stake (= diocese), and many of its leaders are currently undocumented. However, whatever their legal status may be, their status in the church is clearly defined in the New Testament: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). There is no distinction made between members who hold green cards and those who don’t; both are called to serve in the church.
I spent two years enforcing U.S. immigration law as a U.S. diplomat in the consular section of the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara, Mexico. I issued (and denied) tens of thousands of visas as I developed a great deal of love and compassion for Mexicans. I still regard Mexico as my second home (though the worsening security situation makes it less likely that I will be going home in the near future). After visiting dozens of small towns whose young men are all in the States, you can’t help but develop a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God outlook on things. If I had been born in Yahualica, Jalisco, I would probably be in the U.S. right now looking for opportunities, regardless of my legal status. If 110 million Slovenes had lived south of our border and 10 million north of it in 1908, my great-grandmother would have done the same thing.
I believe that discussion of this issue by Latter-day Saints and Jews should avoid extremist positions on either side. Words have meanings: people who come to this country to work hard and improve their lot in life are not “criminals” for breaking an immigration law. Unless illegal immigrants are committing serious crimes, they are not criminals, and we would do well to avoid demonizing them. An oft-repeated Jewish theme is the religious obligation to show kindness to strangers: “Thou shalt not vex a stranger, nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21), “Love ye therefore the stranger” (Lev. 10:19). On the other hand, Latter-day Saints definitely believe in the rule of law: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land” (D&C 58:21), “We believe in…obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Twelfth Article of Faith). A Jewish equivalent would be the Talmudic principle of dina d’malchuta dina (“the law of the kingdom is the law”). It is obscene to label those who support
stronger immigration enforcement at a state level as racists, Nazis, or advocates of apartheid (charges that have been leveled by public figures in recent days). The recently-passed Arizona immigration law (sponsored by a Mormon legislator) targets people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants, not citizens or legal residents. By way of contrast, the Nazis threw millions of their citizens into ghettos, concentration camps, gas chambers, and crematoria. Apartheid stripped millions of black South Africans of their citizenship, confined them to “homelands” in their own country, and required them to have special passes to live and work among
whites. There is no comparison whatsoever between any immigration law in this country and Nazism or apartheid, and advocates of increased immigration enforcement deserve to have their concerns addressed in a respectful manner. I was glad to see the Simon Wiesenthal Center and ADL publicly denounce these ill-considered Holocaust references, which have no place in this debate.
In the “true confessions” department, I must admit to having walked in the illegals’ shoes, at least for a summer. Following a study-abroad semester in Moscow, Russia, I arrived in Gorizia, Italy, eager to start a promised summer internship at a local bank. However, I soon found out that the slot had been given to a local business student whose father had leaned on the bank president. My visa was canceled and I suddenly had no way to earn the money necessary to purchase my flight home. I made my way to Milan, where I frantically looked for work. By the grace of God and with the help of friends I knew from my prior missionary service in Italy, I landed a job at a Milanese trade journal whose kind owner, Ercole Ciaglia, let me stay in one of his apartments during the summer and paid me enough money for the ticket to Detroit. Needless to say, I worked for three months illegally. Had I been caught, I would have been deported. Was I a “criminal” for doing this? Hardly. Would the Italian police have been justified in asking me for ID if they had stopped me for another infraction and suspected that I was in the country illegally (à la the Arizona law)? You betcha.
Based on my life experiences so far, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Father of us all probably cares less about where His children live than how they treat each other. Shabbat shalom.