Beyond Borders: A Moral Approach to Immigration

Authors note: Originally published at FPR on Feb. 4, 2012.

Yuriy and Van lived in a much nicer neighborhood than we were used to. Most of the investigators we taught in the Little Saigon region of Orange County, California were poor immigrants who lived in either very humble homes or in apartments of varying conditions. Yuriy and Van lived in an upper middle class neighborhood with few recent immigrants.

Yet, Yuriy and Van were recent immigrants, though with a twist. Yuriy was Russian and spoke no English or Vietnamese. Van was Vietnamese but she was from the northern part of Vietnam. Most of the people we worked with were from the Saigon region of Vietnam. The northern accent presented a challenge for me, but not for my Vietnamese companion Truyen Pham.

As we started to teach Yuriy and Van, she was very friendly. Unable to communicate with Yuriy, he seemed annoyed by our presence. However, it turned out that his annoyance was more curiosity as he started to sit in on our lessons. We taught Van in Vietnamese and she translated into Russian for Yuriy.

Yuriy was visibly thrilled when he received a copy of the Book of Mormon in Russian. He could finally dive into the gospel message at his own rather fast pace.

Thus began one of my favorite missionary adventures. It had ups and downs including periods when we could not get a hold of them. However, something in particular set Yuriy and Van apart from the other investigators and members that we worked with…they were illegal immigrants.

    The Politics and Policy of Immigration

Immigration of all sorts has always led to tension within societies. Immigrants add to the competition for employment and other resources. They also challenge us culturally by bringing new foods, languages, practices, and even new religious and political outlooks. Such shifts make us nervous on a variety of levels and those looking to advance themselves politically (or looking to sell books) are quite apt to tap into these nervous fears.

As a moral and political philosopher, I am not looking to proscribe any particular legal reform or specific policy. Instead, I am interested in sharing some of the principles that I think can guide us in our debates and considerations about such policies. These principles can be found in both our scriptures and in our moral evaluations of our own experiences. However, in doing so, we may need to shed some ideological and traditional constructs.

How should we address the issue of illegal immigration? This issue has been at the focal point of many contentious debates and blog posts. Like my issues, our greatest challenge is seeing those who we are discussing as humans, humans just like us. When “law and order” becomes more important to us than people, we have become something very ugly.

    Brought By The Hand Of The Lord

5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a e which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.

6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.

7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.

The land of promise which Lehi spoke of seemed an apt description of the Vietnamese immigration population in Orange County. Some of the older members had worked in the American Embassy in Saigon before the United withdrew from Vietnam. Others had come to United States after escaping by raft in 1980. Most of the people I met while tracting where the families of South Vietnamese soldiers who had been imprisoned for up to a decade in education camps following the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

Surely, if “none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord,” these people had been brought to this land of freedom and opportunity from the authoritarian homeland which the had fled. At least that is how it seemed to me as a bright-eyed nineteen year old. I no longer think that all human events are part of God’s meta-chess game. Yet, who I am I to judge one way or another the motivations off another in coming the United States.

The idea of immigrants coming to the New World in order to realize the American Dream is one which can be traced back to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. It is also an integral part of Mormon pioneer story as newly baptized European Saints bolstered up the community of Saints in the young frontier of Deseret.

In a land made up of almost entirely of immigrants, Lehi’s prophecy fits well within the paradigm of Manifest Destiny. Of course, this would apply to all who came to North and South America both in ancient and modern times…not just to what we now know as the United States.

Van and Yuriy’s story had a different background. Van was the daughter of a well-off North Vietnamese family, likely with close ties to the Communist establishment. From a young age she had been intensely trained as a classical pianist. In order to get the best training, she was sent to a boarding school in Moscow. Here she would meet Yuriy.

Yuriy was a bit older than Van. He had previously been married and had older children. He once told Elder Pham and I, that his older children reminded him of Laman and Lemuel because they did not come unto the Lord as their father had wished.

When we where teaching them, I was not aware of the circumstances of their migration to California. It was not something we gave much thought to since the United States had a rather friendly immigration policy toward individuals and families leaving Vietnam. As we often joked, their were few Vietnamese immigrants in California…the swim was too long.

    Tribes, Nations, and Division

2 And the people were divided one against another; and they did separate one from another into tribes, every man according to his family and his kindred and friends; and thus they did destroy the government of the land.

The above verse from 3 Nephi Chapter 7 begins an account of the evils and secret combinations that befell the Nephites and Lamanites prior Christ’s visit to the Americas. This division amongst them would lead to great wickedness and pride. Centuries later a secular prophet, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, would lament the way in which property lines, and eventually national borders, pitted man against man and destroyed the brotherhood of man. The tribal lines adopted by the Nephites and Lamanites caused them to lose sight of the secret combination which they had once stood united against. Instead, these combinations grew in power and influence.

Such divisions where very much present amongst the Saints in Orange County. The cities of Garden Grove, Westminster, and Santa Ana had once been bastions of white middle-class living. An influx of Mexican, Korean, Cambodian, and Vietnamese was followed by the “white flight” as middle-class whites moved to other parts of California, as well as to places such as Arizona and Nevada. LDS Stakes in particular faced considerable changes as ethnic language branches, wards, and stakes grew, while once strong English-speaking unites were merged.

While illegal immigration was typically not an issue amongst the Asian immigrant populations of Orange County, it was something that the Spanish-speaking units dealt with on a regular basis.

“The Sunday School President didn’t show up today, turns out he was deported,” a Spanish-speaking missionary casually mentioned to his companion in the hallway of the Garden Grove Stake Center.

“What will happen to him?” I asked.

“Oh, he will be back next week,” responded the other missionary as a matter of fact.

It was while talking with other missionaries in the mid-1990s that I learned that the Church did not look into immigration status when making callings or when interviewing investigators for baptism.

I once asked a Spanish-speaking missionary if they ever baptized “illegal immigrants.” He paused. With a perplexed look he asked me, “Who do you think we baptize?”

He continued to say that 85 to 90 percent of the Spanish-speaking wards were undocumented. I was briefly shocked, but it also lead to a change in heart. I had watched these Hispanic members with awe my entire mission. Their units were strong and the members were enthusiastic. These were good people. Maybe their immigration status did not matter.

The indifference of the Church when it comes to the legal status of it’s members and converts has drawn the ire of anti-illegal immigration forces. In particular, Lou Dobbs, formerly of CNN, attacked the Church for only caring about filling the pews. In some sense this is true…we are more interested in which Church attend than we are in you nationality or residence status. We will leave the defense of American whiteness to Lou Dobbs.

The question of how we should treat undocumented residents of illegal immigrants is not a special category. Instead, it is a question of how should we treat other people. Christianity deals with many things, but it contains a special emphasis on how we should treat our fellow man. The Book of Mormon has many passages about this aspect of Christianity and two came to mind as I ponder this issue.

We learn in the first chapter of Alma about how the Nephites treated each other during a time of collective righteousness.

30 And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

I we borrow from this attitude, I do not see how we could deny assistance to those athirst in the dessert or provide health care to the needy, even if they are undocumented. Surely this is the spirit of “having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”

Yet, I do not think that having pity, or even charity, for the needy goes far enough. For this I turn to Jacob Chapter 2.

17 Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.

While I have dealt with the second part of the verse in some of my other work, it is the first part of this verse that is key to how we should view and treat other people. We should like of them as being like ourselves. They worry about their family, just like I do. They have hopes and dreams, just like I do. The are struggle to make it is a tough world, just like I am. The undocumented immigrant is not all that different that me. She is a human being. She is a daughter of our heavenly father.

I am of great worth. So is she.

    Are we living the faith?

Now, I am not looking to propose any law or policy that will solve or even address this issue. However, if we are living up to the ideals of our scripture, Christians should be viewing and treating immigrants in a certain way. We cannot know the intent of the heart of others, but out words are often an indicator of our hearts. No matter our view of policy and law, how do we speak of immigrants when around others. How do we respond to the comments of others when they speak of our brethren with distain.

The Savior set forth a great example to us. At Jacobs Well, Jesus did not care that the woman was a Samaritan. His focus was on his eternal work and not worldly divisions. To say that this is silly and unrealistic in our world, is a response rooted in the pride of the world.

Van and Yuriy were eventually baptized. Yuriy came to church and read from his beloved Book of Mormon. While serving in a different area, I learned that they had moved from the house where we had taught them. They had moved to an apartment and they were having trouble.

Turns out that they had come to the United States on short-term visas and had stayed longer than they were allowed. They were in the country illegally. This is not an uncommon story. Many illegal residents, crossed the border legally. However, they decided to stay after coming here.

For Yuriy and Van, I had no doubt that they had been brought here by the hand of the Lord, as Lehi had said.

Looking back, I was not phased at all by their legal status, though I likely would have been prior to my mission. Yuriy was now my brother. Van was now my sister.

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