Saturday, June 11, 2011

Immigration Utah-style

(l to r) Bishop H. David Burton, Pamela Anderson, Utah Governor Gary Herbert
I have been heartened in recent weeks and months by the Church's gentle guidance in the contentious immigration debate raging across America today. I have observed the steady and persistent progress, beginning with the "unwritten" Hispanic Initiative several years ago, then earlier this year with the Utah Compact, and finally yesterday with an updated statement on this issue as the work of the recent legislature here in Utah was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert.

Several years ago while serving on the high council in our stake, I was given the missionary portfolio. It was in the era of President Gordon B. Hinckley, and I loved the assignment to coordinate the work of the ward missions, the ward mission leaders, and the full-time missionaries. Our stake, rural in nature and filled with Hispanics from many countries of origin in Central and South America, gave rise to many conversations about their individual situations and how we could best serve them.

Even earlier, some twenty years ago, I had served as a counselor in the stake mission. Back then we believed there was a pressing need to organize a Spanish branch, and advocated for it. We even had strong impressions about the man who should be called as the first branch president. However, our recommendations were summarily dismissed routinely by the stake presidency, and a branch was formed in the neighboring stake over the hill in Park City.

I learned years later the reason why -- the stake president who called me to serve on the high council had served as a counselor in the stake presidency when I was in the stake mission presidency. In a moment of remarkable candor in a high council meeting he confessed he was "bigoted" against the Hispanics at the time and had opposed any efforts or suggestions to organize them within our stake. Following his release as stake president, a Spanish branch was finally organized and the very man we had thought would be the logical choice as branch president was called fifteen years later!

There is a valuable lesson here (in fact, there are many). When the time is right the work of the Lord proceeds, but it can only proceed when we set aside the limitations we impose upon it sometimes. Time tends to soften hearts, change minds, and then when the Spirit directs, institutional changes can finally be implemented.

The latest numbers suggest about 2,200 refugees a year are coming into Utah from Iraq. While writing about Zion many years ago, I observed:

"Ephraim's descendants will figure prominently in the leadership of the House of Israel in the development of Zion, but it would be a gross error to assume that Zion is the private domain of Ephraim. The scriptures speak plainly of all the tribes coming to their inheritances in their various lands. We are witnessing the emergence of all these long-lost cousins in Israel in our day, as adversity, lawlessness, and political upheavals continue to drive them to our borders of freedom. They come because of wars, famines, diseases, natural disasters, and the love of freedom, but whatever the reasons they are coming to claim their promised blessings at the hands of Ephraim. Let us never be so surfeited by the things of this world that we cannot embrace them, when they come with little more than the clothes on their backs."

The stake presidency invited me to attend a training meeting with our Area President and the full-time mission president. The branch president and the branch mission leader were also invited. With regard to a person's legal status as a resident of America, the Church has a long-standing position of neutrality, and where the federal government has been ambiguous over enforcement of borders, it has remained for years above the fray. At the time of this meeting there were voices within the Church questioning if the Brethren were not being observant of the 12th Article of Faith, which states:

We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

The Area President took the issue head on in our meeting. "I just don't worry about it," he said. "I've been in meetings with President Hinckley where he has told us our duty is to welcome all the immigrants without regard to their legal status and to teach them the gospel. That's why they are here, even if they don't know it yet." His counsel to us provided a clear mandate and we implemented the provisions of an "unwritten" document he gave us that night called the "Hispanic Initiative." We were asked to pilot the initiative in our stake, which we did based upon his direction.

I have been an eyewitness of the principles contained in the furtive attempts to implement the Hispanic Initiative, and was thrilled to see the embodiment of what we were doing years ago in this accompanying article on the Church's website yesterday:

The First Presidency has for many years taught that undocumented status should not by itself prevent an otherwise worthy Church member from entering the temple or being ordained to the priesthood.

There are still those who assert we cannot and should not be providing safe haven through our service to the Hispanic population if they are illegal immigrants. However, I am not one who takes that position. I am well aware of the arguments in favor of stringent enforcement of immigration laws. I've heard all the voices about the illegals utilizing health care, schools, and so forth.

But I believe the Church has opted for the observance of the higher law, and that is a good thing as the principles inherent in the establishment of Zion in the last days unfold before our eyes. The position as now published publicly by the Church is consistent with everything I have studied in the scriptures and espoused in the precedents for building a Zion community that will one day span the earth as with a flood.

I am aware of how heated and contentious the immigration debate can be. I know there are members of the Church who will continue to push back against the Church's position in this statement. An undocumented immigrant who comes to this country to work without the government's permission, a person who is otherwise law-abiding and hard-working, cannot and must never be branded as a criminal any more than someone who is guilty of a similar infraction akin in the law to a speeding ticket.

Our mandate as Christians serves a higher law than man's law. All God's children are deserving of His richest blessings without regard to their legal resident status. And now the Church has made it official.

Living prophets lead the way.

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