Consider this editorial in the Deseret News. (I mean it. Follow the link, read the article, and come back.) Intellectually there is quite a bit going on in these paragraphs. First, it is addressing the immigration debate arguing in effect that the rule of law is undermined by both widespread flouting of the laws and attempts to relentlessly enforce laws that are unfair. Both points are well taken in my opinion and in my mind they point toward a policy of better enforcement of considerably more liberal immigration laws, something I would certainly support. The interesting stuff, however, comes in the way that the editorial uses nineteenth-century Mormon experience.
All the talk of pioneers, of course, is just a polite way of saying Mormons in public, and the point that it makes is correct: The Mormon pioneers in Utah were squatters. There is a certain amount of tetchiness on this point in the comments at the DN site, but there isn’t any serious debate about this. Granted, after the ceding of northern Mexico to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American war, Mormon immigration to Utah didn’t necessarily involve illegally crossing an international boarder (although there was some of that later in the 19th century), but the settlements up and down the Mormon corridor were settled by people who did not possess legal title to the land that they occupied. Indeed, the editorial understates this, implying that after 1869 when the territorial land office was set up in Utah everything was entirely legal. Not so. It actually took a decade or two to sort out legal title to all of the settled land in Utah.
The editorial also understates the way in which the Mormon pioneers status as squatters effected their attitudes toward the law. Mormons were hostile to federal authority for much of the 19th century. Most of this had to do with polygamy and theocracy, but it would be a mistake — I think — to underestimate the impact of property law on events. Some pretty solid modern scholarship has demonstrated that the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri (as opposed to the earlier expulsion from Jackson County) was orchestrated in part by a group of local non-Mormon elites who manipulated public sentiment against the Mormons as a way of getting their property. At the very least, these elites profited mightily by snapping up Mormon “preemption rights” thereby reaping the economic benefits of Mormon improvements. Thus, during the Utah period Mormons were in part suspicious of federal authority because they feared — not without cause as past experience showed — that formal land law could be used by enemies to confiscate their de facto property. The result was a healthy dollop of contempt by Mormons for federal legal power and even — I believe — a certain amount of extra-legal violence (read “law breaking”) against claim jumpers, real and perceived.
There is another strand of thinking at work in the DN editorial, a strand associated with the work of Peruvian political activist Hernando De Soto and the Nobel Prize winning economist Douglas North. Both of these thinkers have looked at the way in which informal and illegal activity can be formalized and brought within the legal domain. Hence, North has argued that the origins of the rule of law in the Anglo-American tradition can be found in the formalization of land title in medieval England. De Soto has argued that one of the chief impediments to economic prosperity in the developing world is the way in which the poor are excluded from the formal legal system. In effect, they must exist as squatters.
Hence, this article is implicitly doing more than simply calling for immigration reform. It is in effect arguing that the shadowy, informal, illegal labor market inhabited by undocumented immigrants is akin to the shadowy, informal, illegal system of land holding that Mormon pioneers (and medieval lords and peasants, the inhabitants of Brazilian slums) inhabited. Just as the formalization of property rights in land allowed for economic flourishing, the formalization of property rights in labor — if you will — will allow for economic flourishing.
Aside from the merits of the argument, the DN editorial raises an interesting question: Is this a “Mormon” editorial? Yes and no. The example of Mormon pioneers serves two functions. First it illustrates a point. Second — and far more importantly — it appeals to a Mormon audience, inviting them to associate immigrants with pioneer forbearers. In part this is simply a rhetorical move. But in part it represents a peculiarly Mormon challenge to the claims of national identity to primary allegiance. The idea is that if immigrants are like Mormon pioneers they have some claim to the regard of American Mormons in the face of any objection that they are not like Americans. It is an appeal over the head of national identity to tribal and religious identity. On the other hand, the arguments — especially the implicit appeal to De Soto and North — are not themselves peculiarly Mormon. What we get is thus a marriage of Mormon stories and imagery to a-Mormon ideas, along with a subtle subliminal appeal to Mormonism’s most potentially radical political idea, namely the way in which it compromises allegiance to the nation state.
The Deseret News shouldn’t really exist. I can’t think of any city in the U.S. of comparable size to Salt Lake that supports two major daily newspapers. The DN is gambling that they can carve out a niche for themselves with — among other things — a stronger and more unique editorial voice, one that emanates from their “values.” In this context, I don’t think that values is simply a code word for “Mormonism” or “conservatism,” although at times it is both of those things. Rather, I think it is an attempt to find a voice that combines an engagement with public ideas with some voice and ideas rooted in a Mormon milieu. The possibility of such a voice is the final issue lurking within this editorial.
All in all there is quite a bit more going on here than one normally gets from the editorial page of a struggling regional daily.