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.