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Romney’s Tough Immigration View Is at Odds With His Church

Mitt Romney waves during a campaign rally at Brady Industries February 1, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Mitt Romney waves during a campaign rally at Brady Industries February 1, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

While Mitt Romney is taking a hard line on immigration even as the Republican primaries head toward the heavily Hispanic states of Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, the Mormon Church to which he belongs has become a decisive player in promoting policies that are decidedly more friendly toward immigrants.

The church was instrumental last year in passing controversial legislation in Utah that would provide “guest worker” permits to allow illegal immigrants with jobs to remain in the United States. The church also threw its weight behind the Utah Compact, a declaration calling for humane treatment of immigrants and condemning deportation policies that separate families, which has been adopted by several other states.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for its reluctance to be seen as meddling in politics. But on immigration, the church actively lobbied legislators, sent Presiding Bishop H. David Burton to attend the bill signing and issued a series of increasingly explicit statements in favor of allowing some illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work.

The church’s endorsement helped shift the debate on immigration in a Republican state where more than 80 percent of legislators are Mormons. It was the church’s most overt involvement in politics since 2008, when it joined other conservative churches in the campaign to pass Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

“They were the defining factor in passing that immigration legislation,” said Ronald Mortensen, a Mormon who is co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, which opposed it. “It was probably the most obvious intervention by the Mormon Church on any piece of legislation up here for years. They’re usually a lot more subtle.”

Mormons in Utah who back an accommodating approach to immigrants say they have been disturbed to see Mr. Romney align himself with his party’s anti-immigration flank and with Tea Party members. Mr. Romney has dismissed as “amnesty” any proposal to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He at first said he would veto the “Dream Act,” which would offer legal status to young illegal immigrants in the United States if they earned a college degree or serve in the military. He later revised his position to say he favored legal status for those who serve in the military.

In contrast, the Mormon Church has said that any immigration reform must balance the principles of loving one’s neighbor and keeping families intact with the imperative to secure the nation’s borders and enforce its laws.

Church officials have made no effort to reach out to Mr. Romney to discuss their differences on immigration and do not plan to do so, said Michael Purdy, director of media relations for the church, who declined to be interviewed but answered questions by e-mail. (Two officials with the Romney campaign did not return several e-mails asking for a response.)

Mr. Purdy wrote, “The Church’s position on political neutrality states: Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position.”

Mormon immigration advocates who know Mr. Romney personally said they did not know where his heart was on the issue. They noted that when he served as a Mormon bishop and area leader in Boston in the 1980s and ’90s, he ministered to struggling immigrants from Asia and Latin America. (He later had to explain why he hired a lawn care company that employed illegal immigrants.) But they said they understand that to get the nomination, Mr. Romney has to appeal to the Republican Party’s right wing. And they said it may behoove him to demonstrate that he departs from his church’s position on important issues.

Mark Shurtleff, the Utah attorney general and a Mormon who helped draft the Utah Compact, endorsed Mr. Romney’s candidacy and recently attended an event with him but did not bring up immigration. “I wish I could sit down with him and explain,” he said. “I would tell him there are very good law enforcement and public safety reasons to support the Utah Compact, besides that it’s right.”

Mr. Romney’s chief rival for the nomination, Newt Gingrich, has struck a softer tone on immigration, but he too is not entirely in step with his own Roman Catholic Church. Catholic bishops support the Dream Act and advocate broad immigration reform, including citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants; Mr. Gingrich said he supports only “half” the Dream Act — the part about military service.

The Utah Compact was conceived as a counterpunch to the stringent immigration law passed in Arizona in 2010, which gave the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. The compact’s principles call for federal solutions to immigration reform, policies that support families and individual freedom, acknowledgment of the contribution of immigrants in the economy, and local law enforcement focus on crime, not immigration laws.

In Utah, the Chamber of Commerce and the Roman Catholic church were the first to champion the compact, but after many discussions, Mormon Church leaders eventually supported it too, Mr. Shurtleff said. The church has faced the ire of some of its members, including legislators, who are strongly opposed

The main proponent of the Arizona law was Russell Pearce, a Mormon who served as State Senate president. In November, Mr. Pearce was recalled and replaced by Jerry Lewis, who is also a Mormon but who had spoken out against the immigration law. Mormons in Arizona said their church’s support for the Utah Compact was the turning point in the recall election.

The Mormon Church has a variety of motives for its immigration stand: it is eager to be perceived positively by Hispanics in the United States, and in Mexico and Latin America, where it is making new converts; it identifies with the immigrant experience, having fled persecution before settling in Utah; and it places a strong premium on keeping families intact, in this life and the next.

Paul Edwards, editor of The Deseret News, a church-affiliated newspaper in Utah, said, “Latter-day Saints, because of their history of persecution and forcefully being dispossessed of their livelihoods and properties, do have compassion and understanding” for immigrants.

Charlie Morgan, a sociologist who studies immigration at Brigham Young University, a church-affiliated school in Provo, said: “One doctrine that separates the L.D.S. church from others is an eternal family. You get married in a temple and you’re sealed for all time and eternity.”

The issue is not purely spiritual. Estimates are that 70 percent of Latino converts in Utah are illegal immigrants, said Tony Yapias, director of an immigration advocacy group, Proyecto Latino de Utah, and a Mormon.

“In the last year, we had some very high-profile members, a stake president — a branch president — who were deported,” he said. “People have been living in fear, and finally there’s a ray of hope for them.”

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