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How Pearce and the Mormon church see immigration depends on point of view

Senate President Russell Pearce says he spoke with LDS church leaders in Salt Lake City who told him the organization “absolutely” does not oppose his approach to dealing with illegal immigration. Some members of the faith, however, see the situation quite differently. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Senate President Russell Pearce’s recent remarks that he has his church’s consent — or at least some sort of passive approval — to continue pushing for enforcement-only immigration laws has left some fellow Mormons astounded by the suggestion he is in perfect harmony with it.

They said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ June statement, which calls for a more humane solution in dealing with illegal immigration and discourages enforcement-only measures by states, is clearly at odds with Pearce’s approach.

They also rejected notions that the church’s official policy only applies to Utah or that it doesn’t carry as much weight since it came out of the public affairs office rather than the church’s highest governing body, the First Presidency.

Pearce, known nationally for SB1070 — Arizona’s tough immigration law that spurred a wave of similar measures in states across the country this year — said in a recent town hall meeting that he has LDS leaders’ endorsements for his immigration approach.

“It’s shocking to me that he would think that he’s in harmony with (the church). He’s not,” said Larry LeSueur, who served as a Mormon missionary in England and endorsed Pearce’s challenger in the recall election.

Pearce faces a Nov. 8 recall against Republican challenger Jerry Lewis, also an LDS member and former high-ranking church official. It’s the first recall of a sitting legislator in the state’s history.

But other church members who support Pearce said far from being at odds with doctrine, his position reflects church canons and his enemies are hanging their every hat on a loose peg.

“I suspect if there was a problem with the policies we’re doing, if they were really anti-church policy, if we were heretical, if we were heterodox, they would say, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem with what you’re doing’,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, a Mormon, said.

What’s not in dispute is that illegal immigration has split church members, and Pearce’s recent remarks merely served to push this fissure to the surface.

• • •

In a town hall meeting with Republicans last month, Pearce had said he agrees completely with his church statement.

He didn’t stop there. He said he spoke to the LDS church’s headquarters in Utah and “they said they absolutely do not oppose what Arizona is doing and none of their statements should reflect that.”

He also said he met with local church elders to “make sure that there is no conflict with what we’re doing.”

But LeSueur and other church members who were interviewed for this article pointed to Pearce’s advocacy for strict enforcement and its conflict with the church’s call for a more holistic solution, not to mention its concerns that enforcement-only measures might fall short of high moral standards.

They noted that the church supports an approach that allows the undocumented to “square themselves” with the law and continue to work here without necessarily becoming American citizens.

Drex Davis, a Republican Party officer in nearby District 19, compares that to Pearce’s advocacy for legislation that would “turn doctors and nurses into the surveillance arm of some sort of police state.”

Davis, a Mormon, was referring to a proposal, introduced by a Pearce ally in the last session, which would have required hospitals to verify a person’s legal status at some point during the medical-care process. The legislation failed.

The LDS church’s position clearly raises a dilemma for Pearce, he said.

“The biggest issue for Pearce is that he has to choose between (immigration hawk Tom) Tancredo and (Maricopa County Sheriff Joe) Arpaio, on one hand, and on the other hand, a significant bloc of voters who feel a moral obligation to not go along with his policies,” Davis told the Arizona Capitol Times.

Lewis’ ardent allies can be blistering in describing this supposed disconnect between their church’s view and Pearce’s stance on illegal immigration.

“It’s a distortion of the truth,” said Michael Wright, an LDS member and attorney who litigated the case against alleged sham recall candidate Olivia Cortes, who ultimately withdrew from the race.

• • •

But Pearce’s closest allies maintained that his position on immigration is in-step with his faith’s tenets.

They referred to the LDS Articles of Faith, which explicitly teach members to obey, honor and sustain laws. They pointed to the church’s handbook, which says members who immigrate to another country should “comply with applicable laws.”

They argued that the LDS church’s June statement is drafted amorphously — meaning people can draw different interpretations from it.

They offered another point: The statement came out of their church’s press office. It wasn’t issued directly by the church prophet or by the church’s foremost governing body, the First Presidency.

Additionally, they were never admonished for advocating a stringent stance on illegal immigration.

“Not one of us has ever received, as far as I know, a phone call from Salt Lake City, a letter from Salt Lake City or any representative from church hierarchy saying ‘we’ve got a problem with you’,” Biggs said.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, another LDS legislator from the East Valley, said the premise that it’s compassionate to ignore the enforcement of immigration laws is faulty to begin with.

“So to say that because they’ve chosen to break our laws, to ignore our sovereignty, to come up here and every day violate the very laws that we have passed — and we’re not supposed to enforce them and somehow that’s compassionate?” he said. “Which other laws should we just ignore?”

Their point is this: How is it compassionate to put those who break the law ahead of the millions who are legally trying to migrate to the U.S.?

They also accused Lewis, a former stake president, of “raising the religion issue” to win votes, and added they found it hypocritical, especially given the church’s avowed neutrality in elections.

But Wright, the Mesa lawyer and Pearce critic, said the argument that the LDS statement on illegal immigration doesn’t have as much weight because it wasn’t issued directly by the First Presidency reveals naivety about how the church operates.

Wright, who served as bishop, said the church is “very centralized” when it comes to public statements, particularly on such a sensitive issue as how to deal with illegal immigrants.

“It was disseminated at the direction of the First Presidency,” he said.

• • •

In any case, Pearce’s remarks might have put the LDS church in another tight spot, compelling it to more specifically respond to the situation in Arizona.

“While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position on any specific immigration legislation in Arizona, we have made our position on immigration clear.  The Church believes that an enforcement-only approach is inadequate,” the church told local KPNX-TV, Channel 12.

The LDS church said its position is based on three principles — the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the importance of keeping families intact and the federal government’s obligation to secure its borders.

When asked specifically by the Arizona Capitol Times if its position applies to Arizona, a church spokesperson from Salt Lake City replied: “The church’s position on immigration is principle-based, and applies universally.”

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