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?

4 thoughts on “Lessons on Immigration from the Book of Mormon, Part 2”

  1. I’m trying to read your post carefully–I have a nuanced view of this as well, and it bugs me to death when people hear one or two beliefs I have and automatically assume they have all the other beliefs they think people who “think like that” have.

    Basically, it sounds like what you’re worried about is more the feelings people have about the individual people who are illegally immigrating, more than how they’re feeling about the issue in general.

    And I have no qualms with that. The entire problem with what dialogue has become in this country is that we have given up talking about solutions to problems, and instead focus on the perceived morality of the opposition.

    That was my issue with this whole mosque debate–it was entirely a debate about who was the most evil. There is no real answer to that question. How does a discussion like that resolve? Obama comes out holding up a treaty saying, “Okay, we’ve hashed out a compromise agreement that says that party A is 40% evil, party B is 40% evil, and the remaining 20% is the media.”

    Same thing with this. We absolutely have to arrive in a place where we’re seeing everybody involved as people, and seeing people the way Christ would see them.

    There is another problem in political dialogue, though, and that’s assuming that the other side’s motivation is simply the opposite of your own motivation. This generally ends up leading to people talking past each other, as they both try to have their own conversation about their view of the issue, which can be completely opposite.

    In this case, that could break down to one side discussing “Immigration” while the other side discusses “Illegal.”

    Your last post made it sound like you were advocating for a change in the actual U.S. Immigration policy to facilitate easier immigration. I agree wholeheartedly with that. That’s a solution, and, I feel, a solution that addresses everbody’s issues. More people get to experience the type of freedom that you’ve pointed out that America exemplifies, and the documentation that those who are worried about the “illegal” part talk about takes place.

    The idea that worries about illegal immigration are uncharitable oversimplifies it. First, charity has little to do with whether something is right or wrong. On my own mission we taught a suspected murderer. As I struggled with what that meant about how I should deal with him, I came the realization it shouldn’t matter–I, personally, should treat him like a child of God and help him try to work out his salvation. That didn’t mean, however, that I should think his sin was okay or that I should be distraught if the government decided to enforce its laws.

    Also, seeing people as people means seeing all people as people. The influx of illegal immigrants influences the caps on people from other countries–or even from Mexico–who are trying to immigrate legally. A man in my ward–who had already married a woman from South America–had to send her and her son back home for a year as part of the “legal” immigration process. Talking about “cutting ahead in line” isn’t simply rhetoric–she and her son had to wait, in a very real way, to get into the country, while others simply crossed a border and stayed.

    Can’t you see how someone like him would be frustrated with our current “system,” which rewards those who are least cooperative, while punishing those who want to play by the rules?

    He’s not racist–his wife is part of the larger ethnic group that includes Hispanics. He’s just frustrated.

    So in order to be truly charitable, seeing all people as people, immigration reform has to be all-inclusive. It has to:

    1. Create legal means for the immigration to take place. If a large number of immigrants each year is a favorable situation, make it legal. Don’t make them hide. If we’re really going to welcome them, let’s welcome them over the table, give them legitimate IDs and social security numbers, and really make them part of the system.

    As Mormons, while obedience may not be the first principle of the gospel, it is the first law of heaven. We believe in being subject to rulers and in obeying the law. If it needs fixed, as Mormons, we fix it with the law.

    2. Treat the entire world equally. While there are often accusations of racism leveled against opponents of illegal immigration, the fact is, it’s our current immigration “system” that favors one nationality over another, based on proximity rather than need.

    3. Eliminate the minimum wage. It’s not true there are jobs that Americans won’t due. What’s true is that there are jobs that have been made illegal for Americans to do, based on the minimum wage laws. My own mother worked in the fields beside what were then called “migrant workers” in order to save money for college.

    * * *

    But there’s the macro and the micro. Those are “macro” level policies. On the “micro” level, each of us should absolutely reach out to every individual that falls within our sphere of influence with understanding, patience, and Christ-like love.

  2. Very well said. Thanks.

    As I think about my post, it really doesn’t propose a solution, though I said earlier that immigration needs to be uncapped, which solves a huge portion of the problem. But not all of it.

    What if current illegal immigrants don’t want to become citizens? Say they don’t care about being able to vote, or they’re content making what they make, or whatever. Then what? We need a solution for that, too.

    I think there needs to be an amnesty — and I HATE that word for some reason — with a restricted time frame. (Not sure what I dislike about the term “amnesty” — it’s too forgiving, maybe?)

    Bah, too much to think about this late at night.

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