Last year, several General Authorities, including Elders M. Russell Ballard and Marlin K. Jensen, waded into the immigration debate in an attempt to influence and moderate the policies being discussed. Given the large number of undocumented immigrants in the Church, especially out West, and the dramatic effect that immigration crackdowns have on our membership, the reason for such action is understandable. In recent weeks, additional developments underscore why, in my mind, Church members ought to support comprehensive immigration reform that, while seeking to better secure our borders and enforce immigration law, also allows otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants who are currently here a chance to normalize their status.
Last week, an undocumented immigrant missionary returning from his mission was detained at a Cincinnati airport “lacking necessary documentation to board his flight home.” In the wake of this, Church leaders decided to have another undocumented immigrant finishing his mission in Oklahoma drive home to Salt Lake with his uncle rather than fly.
Undocumented immigrants are able to serve missions because of a narrow exception the Church lobbied Senator Bob Bennett to add to an agricultural spending bill in 2005. The exception exempts religious organizations like the Church from liability for, among other things, having undocumented immigrants provide charitable and religious volunteer service.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in the Salt Lake Tribune article linked to above, acknowledged the risks that undocumented immigrants still face in choosing to serve missions. “They go knowing themselves that they’re at risk, and nothing in our mission call changes that. They know that, and we know that, and we work within those parameters to have them be constructive, honorable, faithful, spiritual, religious emissaries for that period of service.” In sending undocumented immigrants on missions, Elder Holland stressed that the Church is trying to “be more precise, if we can, about how to help, how to make [a mission] the calmest, most spiritually rewarding experience for everybody.” Holland noted that the Church’s interest was to ensure that young Latter-day Saints of all backgrounds have the opportunity to enjoy the spiritual benefits of serving a mission because “a mission is so fundamental to our blessings.”
One of the many problems that a comprehensive approach to federal immigration reform would address is the uncertainty and risk posed to the undocumented youth of the Church who want to serve missions. These young immigrants typically bear little to no culpability for the situations they find themselves in and often have a stronger connection to the United States than anywhere else. Allowing them a chance to normalize their statuses as part of the push to reform our federal immigration laws would ease significant burdens for both the Church and its membership and enable youth to enjoy the blessings of a mission without risk of arrest and detainment.