Border issues moot to Mormons in Utah

Faith prompts most to welcome illegal entrants

Denver Post/April 2, 2006
By Michael Riley

Salt Lake City At a bustling Latino market on Salt Lake's west side, dusty workmen munch plates of carnitas at a lunch counter while shoppers scan the aisles for goodies like stewed chipotles or fresh tomatillos.

Behind the cash register, a Peruvian immigrant named Karin says she loves Utah. And even better, this state seems to love her back.

"My aunt told me you can get a (driver's) license, you can go to university. That was a big reason I came," said Karin, 25, who said she plans to take advantage of a law that allows illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition by studying nursing.

Shuffling through a pile of invoices nearby, Teresa Campos, the store manager, nods knowingly.

"I've lived in California. I've lived in Las Vegas. No place is like this," Campos said. Here, "they don't think just because we don't have papers we aren't human beings."

Amid the country's caustic immigration debate, Utah may be the closest thing these days to an immigrant paradise.

Utah is the most Republican state in the country. But the state's more than 95,000 undocumented immigrants can legally drive with a "driving privilege card" created last year. They can go to any public university or community college and pay in-state tuition.

Many of the state's otherwise conservative lawmakers are major players nationally in pushing for a more open immigration policy.

In 2003, conservative stalwart Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sponsored the Dream Act, a bill that would have removed federal penalties for states that want to give illegal immigrants a college tuition break.

"Politically and philosophically, I'm a conservative," said Marco Diaz, chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly. "We can be conservative and still be compassionate. It's not just a slogan in Utah," he said. But it is a paradox.

Political observers seeking to explain the state's unusual embrace of immigrants point to a variety of factors, many involving the state's dominant faith.

Over the last several decades, the Mormon church has sent thousands of Utahans to Latin America on two-year missions to preach and proselytize, creating strong links between the region and people who went on to become some of the state's top policy-makers.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon went on a mission in Guatemala in the 1970s. The state's attorney general, who has adopted two Mexican-American children, spent two years in Peru.

But one of the strongest influences, experts say, is embedded in the central doctrine of the Mormon faith, a force with enormous influence over both politics and society here.

The Book of Mormon teaches that a lost tribe of Israelites known as the Lamanites landed on the American continent in 600 B.C. and are the forefathers of the native peoples of Mexico and Central and South America.

Many Mormons see the tens of thousands of Latin American immigrants who have arrived in the seat of the church as guided by the hand of God to be converted and become critical players in an unfolding religious tale of biblical proportions.

"The Mormon church has taken a position that is pretty clear. They are a proselytizing church, and they view the people coming to Utah as a great group of people to convert," Cannon, a four-term congressman and a Mormon, said.

Not that there isn't some trouble brewing. Recently, opponents have fought back in Utah, wielding their own version of church theology.

They note that the Book of Mormon emphasizes obeying the law and that prospective converts must swear that they deal honestly with other people before they can enter a Mormon temple. Both are inconsistent with crossing the border illegally, critics say.

"Whether there is love of our fellow man is beside the point. The point is they are breaking the law," said state Rep. Glenn Donnelson, who launched an unsuccessful effort during this year's legislative session to rescind both in-state tuition and the driver's privilege cards.

With politicians now battling in Washington over competing visions for the country's immigration policy, both sides are looking to Utah to see whether the state's approach holds any larger policy lessons.