Lessons on Immigration from the Book of Mormon, Part 2

(This is a continuation of this post on immigration issues in the United States. The first post discussed the need for open immigration rather than capped. This post will attempt to discuss the proper response to immigrants who are here illegally.)

In fighting illegal immigrants, I’ve found there are three main arguments people make.

Argument 1: Illegal aliens cost the rest of us taxpaying citizens money.

It costs us money to educate their kids, to provide welfare and health care for those who can’t work, etc. We shouldn’t have to pay for anybody who is here illegally.

What this argument does is puts a price on freedom. Any arguments that involve the cost of illegal immigrants need to take into account the value of the immigrants’ liberty.

Maybe we feel that they were already free, that coming here doesn’t grant them any more freedom than they had. Let’s examine that. Take Mexico. You know Mexico, right? Crime-ridden, poverty-stricken Mexico? “Don’t-drink-the-water” Mexico? No? Let me give you some headlines from the last four days:

Violence is escalating in Mexico, but cartels and corruption have been ruling there for some time. Does that sound like freedom? Vote for who you want, but then have the drug lords kill them? Have those in charge of law enforcement guilty of corruption, of possible collusion with the criminals themselves?

I don’t think it’s just the poverty that motivates Mexicans to seek a better life inside our borders. It’s a better, safer life for themselves and their kids. I would want that, too. And I wouldn’t want to wait, either.

Now consider: we Americans pride ourselves in fighting for others’ freedom. We fought for Europe’s freedom in World War II, paying for it with our people’s lives. In the 1990s we fought to free Kuwait from a hostile invasion from Iraq. “Fighting for freedom” is often cited as the reason we go to war. Whatever your feelings towards the various wars of the last century, it’s clear that Americans believe in fighting for freedom, for anyone, anywhere.

But for some reason people don’t want to pay for the freedom illegal immigrants are enjoying here in the States. What is their freedom from tyranny worth?

What if illegal immigrants didn’t cost us anything? I mean true cost – if our kids could get the same education, our workforce could get the same pay – would we be bothered by their presence? Because if that’s the issue, then where’s the limit? At what price point will we say, sorry, go home, we don’t care what you were escaping, you cost too much.

When you cite what illegal immigrants cost us, you’re putting a price on freedom. Which is pretty silly, seeing as how we’ll give our whole lives to be free. Freedom is priceless.

In the Book of Mormon we read about the price people paid to let the people of Ammon come to their country. Remember that the Nephites even offered to protect these immigrants, rather than saying they would have to defend themselves:

And now behold, this will we do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon; and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies.

The Nephites were willing to pay the price of battle for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ freedom. Note that they asked for a portion of their substance in return. Do we get any recompense from our illegal population?

People who claim that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes are, of course, exaggerating. Illegal immigrants still pay sales tax. They still pay property tax. But without being fully documented workers or citizens, they can’t really pay income tax.

Do you think they would if they could? Or do you think they’re enjoying a free ride? I hope you don’t believe the latter. Illegal immigrants take work at wages below minimum wage, because employers know they can get away with it. Contract laborers take reduced wages. They work harder than almost anyone I know, enduring hard work in harsh conditions.

They don’t pay income tax, but they pay a hefty price.  They are definitely contributors in our country, not freeloaders.

Argument 2: Illegal immigrants are breaking the law.

“Enough said! Get them out!” We Latter-day Saints pride ourselves on being law-abiding citizens. In the words of Joseph Smith,

We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
12th Article of Faith

And how can you obey, honor, and sustain the law while allowing illegal immigration?

As a missionary in Argentina (the Buenos Aires South mission – the best mission in the world, and don’t challenge me, or we’ll have to fight), I started with the belief that obedience was the most important part of the Gospel. Being obedient to the law, to commandments and counsel of Church leaders, and in my case, to the mission rules.

Frankly, I was wrong.

Obedience is not the first principle of the Gospel. It’s a principle, but there are other principles that trump it, and we learn this from the scriptures and our own Church history.

The first principle of the Gospel is faith, not obedience. (Why would you obey a commandment if you didn’t have faith first that it was a commandment from God?) And yet there’s something even greater than faith — charity. And Christ taught that charity trumps obedience.

No, really.

Consider when Christ and his disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath by plucking ears of corn and eating. He related how David and others had entered the temple, hungry, and ate the shewbread, “which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests.” Why was this permissible?

It relates to another teaching of the Savior’s. When asked which is the greatest commandment, he answered that the first was to love God, and that the second was to love thy neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In light of this, obedience to all other commandments and laws has to be examined as to its compliance with the first and most important laws.

My adherence to my mistaken notion, that I should put obedience above charity, caused a lot of contention and unhappiness. “No, sorry, we can’t teach you the discussions after 9:30 PM, because we have to be home before then.” I said that once, in essence. I wouldn’t share the Gospel with someone who wanted to hear it, but who had a full schedule, because of mission rules.

Thankfully, a wise companion set me straight, and I began to understand how charity trumps obedience. Sadly, it still took me a while to learn.

Perhaps I’m wrong? Maybe being obedient to the law is of greater import than I give it here? Well, let’s look, then, at two recent violations of the law in Utah.

The first is the violation of immigration law. Illegal immigrants. They’re here, and just by being here, they’re breaking the law. (One which I’ve discussed is uncharitable, and needs to be changed. But no matter.)

The second happened this last summer. In July 2010, government workers broke state and federal laws to compile a list of people — including addresses, birthdates, medical conditions, and some social security numbers — who were here illegally. (They released private records, a misdemeanor that could earn you 6 months in jail. If it’s discovered that they actually stole the records — and I’m not sure what constitutes “theft” versus “release” in their case — then it’s a felony that could lead to up to 5 years of prison time.)

The result? Fear amongst Latinos, for one thing. Whether or not they’re citizens, they feel singled-out, hated.

“My concern is not immigration. I am a citizen,” Utahn Jackie Martinez said. “My concern is certain individuals who have this hatred towards me, and who are willing to do anything to get Hispanics out of this state or this country. My fear is for myself and my children.”
KSL.com, July 16, 2010

Poll results: Utahns vs Illegal ImmigrantsMy thoughts? Surely this was the action of a few misguided individuals. Right? But the poll results on the same site (halfway down the page) seem to indicate that the sentiment is shared. No, it’s not a scientific poll. But I didn’t like what it said about my state.

Many, many in this state are Latter-day Saints. As such, we believe that “charity never faileth.” But I don’t think you can be charitable and condemnatory at the same time.

Which do you feel is the greater crime? That of the immigrants, or that of the vigilantes?

There’s a third, unspoken reason to fight the presence of illegal immigrants.

Argument 3: Racism.

Now, not everyone who is fighting illegal immigrants is racist. Not by a long shot. We’re quick to call people racist in this country, and I can’t stand it. But I think we would all do well to examine our hearts, our intentions, and see if it’s not racism that is sparking our disdain for those who have come to share our freedoms.

Once again it comes back to charity. I’d invite you to examine your own heart. Do you feel love for these neighbors we’ve been discussing? Or is there something about them that repulses you? Their culture, their language, their looks?

I think most of us feel some degree of distrust towards those whom we consider foreign. And maybe it’s not even all without cause — one month after moving to Orem, I woke up to flashing lights outside, and saw three kids in handcuffs in my driveway. My Latino next-door neighbors’ teenage son was arrested for some sort of gang-related crime. I had a lot of negative thoughts towards Latinos at that point.

But it’s wrong to let feelings like that take root. I should’ve done better at loving my neighbors, at reaching out to them. I’ve tried to do better since we’ve lived here. I’ve tried to clothe myself with the bond of charity. I’m still trying.

I wish that more Latter-day Saints would show tolerance towards those who have come to the United States illegally. What examples of Christlike charity we could be to those who have trespassed – in this case, literally – against us. What potential converts are living among us already, but who have only seen suspicion and judgment rather than love?

Lessons on Immigration from the Book of Mormon, Part 1

Should We Stop Capping the Number of Immigrants We Allow in Each Year?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

– from “The New Colossus”, engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty

I love living in the United States.

I believe that the Americas truly are choice above all other lands (1 Ne. 2:20, 13:30; 2 Ne. 1:5, 10:19; Jacob 5:43; Ether 2:7,10,15, 9:20, 13:2), and that the United States Constitution was ordained of God (D&C 101:80). I believe the New Jerusalem will be built here (D&C 84:1-4), and I really like our food.

(That last one is worth mentioning, since we’re on the topic of immigration. Foods whose origins are Italian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Polynesian are all easy to find here. And while you might be able to get better Mexican food in Mexico, can you get decent sushi there? And how is the pizza in New Delhi? I honestly wonder if there is any place on Earth that has absorbed a greater variety of cultures.)

Most Americans* tend to agree. We love our country. Land of the free! Home of the brave!

Sadly, in the same breath, many selfishly want to keep others from enjoying what we’ve got. They’ll sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” but only that second phrase seems to reflect their feelings.

Our immigration laws are part of the problem — we cap how many people can become citizens each year. You have to get in line if you want to live here legally, and that line can take years to get through. Capping immigration is tragic to me. Why would we limit how many people can come here and enjoy the same freedoms as us?

Or said differently, what right do I have to exclude people from freedoms that I myself didn’t earn? I can’t even claim the childish excuse of “I was here first!”

Perhaps it’s because we don’t believe there’s enough to go around. Enough jobs, enough land, enough money. But we, as Latter-day Saints, shouldn’t be taken in by this false notion. We have it on good authority that there is plenty, so we shouldn’t hesitate to share:

For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.

-Doctrine & Covenants 104:17-18

If you believe, as I do, that we have it better than a lot of other countries, then the laws that cap immigration become transparent: they are products of and for our selfishness, and they are not Christlike.

So how did the Nephites handle immigration? In the case of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, they behaved like true followers of Christ.

Imagine receiving the news that came out from Zarahemla. The Chief Judge is calling for a vote. There is a group of thousands of Lamanites who want to join themselves to your country — what should be done?

Before you decide, remember it was only very recently, and without warning, that Lamanites attacked the city of Ammonihah, killing every man, woman and child who lived there.

And recall that a century before, the situation was reversed: King Laman had let Nephites come in to possess the Lamanite land of Lehi-Nephi, only with the intention of enslaving them later. How many people died in the decades that followed before they were delivered?

So the Lamanites have a history of being dishonest. They have a history of hating you, the Nephites, and of killing your people. It’s with good cause that the leader of these converts says, “Behold, the Nephites will destroy us, because of the many murders and sins we have committed against them.”

Fortunately, the Anti-Nephi-Lehites were dealing with a righteous generation of Nephites. Because rather than reject them, the Nephites voted to give them land.

And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful, which is on the south of the land Bountiful; and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.

-Alma 27:22

That is how you expect Christians to behave. They didn’t ask how many there were, or, perhaps, if they could afford to buy the land. They simply shared the blessings they had received.

Now picture it from the other side. Imagine yourself waiting in the borders between Nephite and Lamanite territories, having already lost your home, and likely some loved ones as well; you wait while Ammon makes the trek to Zarahemla; you wait while word goes out to the Nephite cities and votes are cast; you wait for Ammon’s return with the news. How many weeks have passed? How much hope do you have left that your people’s countless aggressions towards the Nephites can be forgiven? And if the Nephites say no, what next? Where can you go?

And the word comes that the Nephites aren’t going to let you in as slaves, or as indentured servants, but as full citizens. That they’re not going to make you buy land, you who have been subsisting on what you carried from your home weeks before, but they will give you land to call your own.

And yet, that wasn’t even all the Nephites promised.

And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin; and this their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness.

-Alma 27:23

So. That’s how a righteous people handles immigration. They opened their doors and shared their country. That’s what I believe we should do in the United States.

Next time I’ll explain my feelings for illegal immigrants. But I wanted to conclude with this verse from the song Book of Mormon Stories:

Lamanites met others who were seeking liberty,
And the land soon welcomed all who wanted to be free.
Book of Mormon stories say that we must brothers be,
Giv’n this land if we live righteously.

*I use that term here to mean “citizens of the United States”, even though Canadians, Chileans, and everyone in between are “Americans”. But we don’t have a decent word for ourselves, and “Yankees”, as some call us, makes us think of a New York baseball team.