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Among Mormons, a deep divide on immigration

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.


FOR THE RECORD:
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. —


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“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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Sandstrom became fluent in Spanish and sponsored one family that wanted to immigrate to the United States. He was shocked at the hurdles they had to surmount. They had to sign a form pledging to refuse all U.S. government benefits for five years. Sandstrom thought of the people here illegally who accessed those benefits. It didn’t sit right with him.

He later took over the family architectural business and found many contractors complaining that illegal immigrants were driving down wages.

Sandstrom entered politics as a city councilman in the Provo suburb of Orem. In his second term, the tidy suburb had an unheard-of four homicides — three committed by illegal immigrants. In 2007 he decided to run for the statehouse, and made illegal immigration his signature issue.

The day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the immigration law SB 1070 this spring, Sandstrom announced he would introduce a version here.

One of his chief complaints is that predominantly Mexican illegal immigrants crowd out other, legal immigrants — people like the Venezuelans, Peruvians and other Latin Americans whom he meets on regular return trips to South America and whom he believes are not allowed to legally immigrate because there are too many illegal immigrants here already. “This is not anti-Hispanic in any form,” Sandstrom said.

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But unlike in Arizona, where a united Republican Party easily carried SB 1070 through the Legislature, there has been stiff resistance in Utah.

Although extremely conservative, Utah boasts some of the most illegal-immigrant-friendly laws in the nation, a condition long attributed to the Mormon Church’s calming influence. In addition to charging illegal immigrant students in-state tuition at state universities, Utah gives them “driving privilege cards” which function like driver’s licenses.

“They feel safe here because we let them operate with impunity,” Sandstrom said of illegal immigrants.

Last month, a coalition of prominent business leaders and conservative intellectuals released the Utah Compact, which maps out principles for immigration reform that are in stark opposition to Sandstrom’s bill.

After the compact was unveiled, the church endorsed, but did not sign, the document and issued a separate statement on immigration that echoed its principles.

Many Sandstrom supporters were outraged. One of the church’s 13 articles of faith is “obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.” It is why, despite the church’s strong opposition to abortion, LDS members do not engage in civil disobedience at abortion clinics. The principle is so strong that church leaders have advised members in communist countries to obey the law, even if it is anathema to their other beliefs.

“There’s a lot of people out there, the older generation of Mormons, who are scratching their heads about what’s going on now,” said Ronald Mortensen, a retired diplomat active in the campaign against illegal immigration in Utah. “From the time we’re kids, you memorize the articles of faith. You tend to see the law and the rule of law as something you don’t play with.”

The church statement cited the rule of law but also, significantly, emphasized compassion and the value of keeping families united.

However, the language in the statement was deliberately general because, officials said, they did not want to dictate the specifics of public policy. “It’s not our job to say how high or thick a fence should be, or how many people should be let in,” spokesman Michael Otterson said.

For Yapias, the Mormon Church has often been about family. When he and his brothers, sisters and mother immigrated to the United States in 1980, they joined his father in the heavily Mormon town of Evanston, Idaho.

Yapias, who was raised Catholic, did not speak English when he arrived but found a welcoming atmosphere in Evanston. By his sophomore year in high school, he decided to run for student government. He lost, but won the presidency of the student body the following year.

After graduation, he went to Washington as an intern for Wyoming’s then-Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican who cosponsored the 1986 law that legalized 2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

After returning, Yapias enrolled in BYU and joined the church. By that time, his mother had returned to Peru, and Yapias was eager to embrace a faith that put a premium on building families. Friends also assured him that he was part of God’s plan — a reference to a Mormon belief that some Latinos and Native Americans may be descendants of an ancient prophet, destined to be welcomed into the church.

Yapias married and helped raise five children. He worked as a probation officer. In 2003, he was appointed director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs for the state. Two years later, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“It gave me a different outlook on life,” Yapias said. “You start thinking you might not be here that long.” He became a full-time activist, working odd hours as a translator to pay the bills.

Yapias spends much of his day fielding calls from desperate illegal immigrants. “Tony,” they tell him, “my mother in Mexico is sick. What can I do?” Current immigration law, he says, creates millions of tragedies.

Yapias put his head in his hands. “What it does to our families is just devastating,” he said.

Yapias has debated Sandstrom in public forums several times, and said he personally liked the politician. But he said that Sandstrom was on the wrong side of history.

“I believe that Sandstrom’s children and grandchildren will apologize to us someday,” Yapias said.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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