"Doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me?"

Speaking for the LDS Church at an interfaith dialogue in 2008, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, stated “Immigration questions are questions dealing with God’s children. I believe a more thoughtful and factual, not to mention humane approach is warranted, and urge those responsible for enactment of immigration policy to measure twice before they cut. Meet an undocumented person. Come to know their family. If there is a church that owes debt to the immigrant and the principle of immigration it is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[1]

photo credit: Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News

Elder Jensen’s remarks were made in the context of several measures dealing with immigration were being considered in the Utah House and Senate and were specifically directed to state legislators and other government officials. His comments are in line with a 2011 official church statement on immigration. This statement, while discouraging illegal immigration, also stressed that “The bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God” and warned against mass expulsion, targeting specific groups, and enforcement only legislation[2].      

I felt Elder Jensen's’ statement summed up my feelings on the matter and I recently posted his quote on my Facebook wall. As a moderate liberal in a family of political and religious conservatives, I expected some pushback. I am a peacemaker at heart and generally go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially on political matters. The issue of how to deal with both legal and illegal immigration transcends politics, though, and cuts to the very heart of my religious faith and what I believe the purpose of this country to be.

One family member responded to my post with the following comment, “There's an assumption here that people who oppose immigration do so because they are not "humane." If you get to know them, you'll change your mind. First of all, I don't like being called not "humane" based on this person's assumption that I don't know any immigrants. Well he's wrong. I probably know more immigrants than he does. This isn't an argument. It's an insult.”

I’d first like to say that neither Elder Jensen nor I called out any specific person or group as inhumane. There is a difference between saying that our laws and practices dealing with immigration could be more humane, which is having compassion or benevolence, and calling a particular person not humane. It is entirely possible for good, well-meaning people, who are generally humane, to enact or enforce laws in ways that do not result in the expression of the virtues of compassion or benevolence.

Frankly, I am surprised that such a non-specific call for more thought, facts, and compassion in immigration legislation could be construed as insulting. Any important national decision should be made only after taking time to consider facts, history, and the potential impact the decision could have in people’s lives. Many Americans are jumping to conclusions and reactions based on fear, as we have seen recently in the public support for political figures like Donald Trump with his inflammatory remarks that Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” bringing drugs and crime[3] and calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.[4]” Another well publicized example is Tennessee state Rep. Glen Casada, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus in the state Legislature, who called for the National Guard to round up Syrian refugees[5].

“Othering,” is a term used describe the natural human tendency to view or treat a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. This inclination can lead people to dismiss the “other” as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity in both overt and subtle ways. Truth be told, while still worrying, I am less concerned about individual politicians than I am about those I respect and love espousing views that categorically put large groups of people in the “other camp.” For example, I had someone very dear to me confide their fear that “White people aren’t having enough babies. All the Muslims and the Mexicans are going to keep having babies and soon we’ll be in the minority.” A different family member recently commented on Facebook that if Utah admitted any Syrian refugees he would be happy to use his extensive gun collection to forcibly remove them.

This reaction to immigrants is older than the country itself. Benjamin Franklin, writing in 1751, complained of the German immigrants in Pennsylvania, arguing that their politics, language, and culture, and even darker complexion (as compared to English settlers), was distasteful and incompatible. Others of the time objected to the Germans, labeling them as a lazy and illiterate group whose Catholicism and “excessive fertility” threatened their Anglo-Saxon way of life[6]. Other examples of anti-immigration sentiment litter our history: The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Know Nothing political party and more. 

The United States is a country of immigrants and each wave of immigration has raised the same types of opposition in the native born population. This opposition can be generally divided into three categories: concern for personal and national safety, economic concerns, and fear of cultural change. Take, for example, a 2014 Reuters poll which “showed that 70 percent of Americans — including 86 percent of Republicans — say illegal immigrants threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs, as well as jeopardize the economy.[7]” While othering and the fears that fuel the propensity may be a natural and evolutionarily important reaction to the unknown, it can be intensified in unhealthy and unhelpful ways by media, political, and religious figures.

On the other hand, the negative effects of othering can be balanced by facts and empathy. Facts about the history of immigration, current levels, the contributions of immigrants to our society, and security threats can facilitate better immigration legislation that accurately meets the needs of citizens while respecting the human dignity of those seeking to enter this country. For example, understanding that, “Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born,[8]” or understanding the process for vetting refugees may help alleviate fear about immigration.    
Neither I nor Elder Jensen assumed that particular people on my Facebook friend list held political views because they did or did not know immigrants. What I was asserting and will stand by is that it is important for lawmakers to recognize their own biases and work to correct them. One of the most effective tools to do this is to develop meaningful relationships and contacts with a diverse group of people.   

At the conclusion of her well-researched book on the state of free speech in America and the consequences of silencing opposing viewpoints, Kirsten Powers told the story of a law school admissions board that chose to reject the application of an otherwise acceptable candidate, a young man from a religious college. They wrote that they don’t want a “Bible-thumping student.” One of the members of that committee reminded his colleagues that his background was similar to the young man’s. Ultimately, the admission committee decided to admit the student.

Powers uses this story to illustrate how personal connection can work to overcome deeply ingrained biases. She notes: “We should all make efforts to invite people who hold different views into our worlds. Contrary to popular thought, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds understanding and tolerance.[9]

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a necessary component of a harmonious society because it motivates individuals to act in ways that are good not only for themselves, but for the group as a whole. Most people, no matter their religious affiliation, can remember times when they almost seemed to feel another's’ physical or emotional pain.

Humans seem wired, whether by evolution or by a divine hand, to empathize most with those they are close to. Mirror neurons react to the emotions we view in others and then reproduce them, in essence allowing us to feel what others feel. It is natural to experience empathy for those closest to us, our family and friends, those who are like us. As Christians, we have an added obligation to seek after empathy, also called in the scriptures compassion, mercy, or charity. We are called to emulate the example of Jesus, who seemed particularly attuned to the emotions of those around him. Recall these touching verses from 3 Nephi, when Jesus told the people he would be leaving them:

“And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.
 And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.
 Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.”

As baptized members of the Christ’s church, we are under covenant to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort[10], in essence to have empathy, not just with those we love, but also our enemies, those who hate us[11], and those we consider the least worthy[12] of our empathy. This is a covenant we renew weekly when we take the sacrament and great promises of spiritual strength are attached to keeping this covenant.

As a friend of mine recently said, "Compassion, not contempt is the source of life that so many of us need. it is the font of living water from which we all can drink and sustain life. That is what I am advocating for. I'm not arguing for or against a particular policy. I'm not advocating lawlessness. I do believe that in order to create a just and virtuous society our most important Christian virtue, without which we are like sounding brass, must be evident in our lives and flow into our laws.


[1] Buckley, Deborah. “Have compassion for immigrants, lawmakers urged.” Deseret News. Feb 14 2008. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/695253048/Have-compassion-for-immigrants-lawmakers-urged.html?pg=all.
[2] “Immigration: Church Issues New Statement.” Mormon Newsroom. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jun 10 2011. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/immigration-church-issues-new-statement 
[3] Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. “Donald Trump's false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime. The Washington Post: Fact Checker. July 8 2015.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/
[4] Trump, Donald J. “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration.” Trump: Make America Great Again. Dec 07 2015. https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-statement-on-preventing-muslim-immigration.   
[5] Sisk, Chas. “Tennessee Lawmaker Calls for national Guard to Round UP Syrian Refugees.” NPR Politics. Nashville Public Radio. Nov 19 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/11/19/456502693/tennessee-lawmaker-calls-for-national-guard-to-round-up-syrian-refugees.
[6] Baron, Dennis. “Official American: English Only.” PBS.org. 2005. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/  
[7] Bell, Alistair. “Americans worry that illegal migrants threaten way of life, economy.” Reuters. Aug 7 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-worries-idUSKBN0G70BE20140807.
[8] Immigration Policy Center. “Immigrants and Crime: Are They Connected?” American Immigration Council. Oct 25 2008. http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/immigrants-and-crime-are-they-connected-century-research-finds-crime-rates-immigrants-are
[9] Powers, Kirsten, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. Regnery Publishing. 2015

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