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Among Mormons, a deep divide on immigration

Two leading Utah activists embody opposite views on the issue – and both cite the church's teachings as the core of their positions.

December 31, 2010|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Salt Lake City — At the Sandstrom family table on the edge of the Wasatch Mountains, eldest son Stephen listened carefully as his parents talked about politics, the divine nature of the nation's founding and the importance of the rule of law.

Sandstrom held fast to those tenets of his Mormon faith years later as a state representative. They led him to write a bill modeled on a controversial Arizona law that would require police to determine the immigration status of people they lawfully stop and also suspect are in the country illegally.

Illegal immigration: An article in the Jan. 1 Section A about Mormon church members' differing viewpoints on illegal immigration said that Tony Yapias grew up in Evanston, Idaho. He grew up in Evanston, Wyo. Also, his father labored as a sheepherder in Wyoming, not Idaho. —

"This country is the greatest nation on Earth because God had a hand in its formation," said Sandstrom, 47. "A lot of that is because … we obey the rule of law. Turning a blind eye to illegal immigration jeopardizes the rule of law."

At the Yapias family table in Peru, eldest son Tony felt the strain of a family divided. His father labored seven years in the United States as a sheepherder in Idaho before the family won permission to join him when Tony was 14. The separation ultimately destroyed his parents' marriage.

When he became an adult, Yapias joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, drawn by the religion's emphasis on family. The intersection of the church and his childhood led the 44-year-old to a very different position on illegal immigration than Sandstrom's.

"Every immigrant understands the pain and suffering of any family that's separated," Yapias said. "When Sandstrom or anyone else starts talking, it just opens up wounds.... What I don't understand is how Sandstrom doesn't get it — how two people of the same faith can be so far apart."

Stephen Sandstrom and Tony Yapias embody the conflicting viewpoints on illegal immigration among church members — and both sides cite core LDS principles.

Illegal immigration has been a combustible issue across the country this year, but in normally tranquil Utah it has roiled the state's politics and highlighted a deep divide among Mormons.

Sandstrom's news conference announcing his bill was disrupted by angry immigrants' rights activists. Both sides have staged protests. This summer a list of purportedly illegal immigrants was anonymously circulated — complete with birth dates and, in some cases, noting pregnancies. Two state workers were blamed and fired.

Finally, in November, the Mormon Church stepped into the fray, carefully lending its weight to Yapias' position. It endorsed a set of principles issued by Utah business leaders who oppose Sandstrom's legislation, and issued a statement calling for immigration policy to be made not just with an eye toward the rule of law, but also compassion and family unity.

Church officials said they spoke out because they saw the two wings hardening their positions. "We wanted to moderate the debate," church spokesman Mike Purdy said.

That wasn't enough for some Latino leaders, who complain that the church, unlike many Catholic, Jewish, Islamic and evangelical groups, has been too timid in defending illegal immigrants even as Latinos join the faith in increasing numbers.

Meanwhile, some immigration hard-liners sympathetic to Sandstrom have talked about cutting their donations to the church, charging that religious leaders are pandering to Latinos.

"The church's biggest problem is that it's trying to straddle the fence," said Archie Archuleta, a veteran Latino activist here who is not an LDS member. "They've expended so much energy proselytizing in Latin America. But we live in a red state that is tremendously conservative.... The principles of politics and morality and religion are really in conflict here."

Tall, lean and serious-looking in his dark suit, Sandstrom fits many people's stereotype of a dutiful Mormon. The oldest of five, he grew up in hyperconservative Provo, home to Brigham Young University, and became an avid hunter and mountaineer. His mother served two terms on the City Council and his father, an architect, was active in Republican politics.

After he earned his degree in political science, the church sent him on a mission to Venezuela, where proselytizing took him from the highest reaches of Caracas society to impoverished villages on the Caribbean coast. It was in those small towns that Sandstrom's worldview changed.

"I had always thought that everyone who lives in one of those countries must be miserable," he said. Instead, Sandstrom said he found the people in those towns — living in tin-roof shacks and laboring for a few dollars a day — "were very hardworking and very happy with their lives."

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