Editor’s Note: The following represents the author’s studied opinion and Meridian magazine will consider manuscripts for publication which differ with the opinion cited here.
I realize that immigration is a controversial issue, so let me begin by referencing a recent official Church statement on the subject, which indicates that “undocumented status should not by itself prevent an otherwise worthy Church member from entering the temple or being ordained to the priesthood,” and concludes “Church members should avoid making judgments about fellow members in their congregations” (June 10, 2011) The principle here seems to be that eternal covenants should not be subordinated to man’s laws, which can and will change over time. Similarly, I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is more important than differences in race, ethnicity, nationality, or politics, and I would be happy to go on a service project or attend a temple session alongside anyone who disagrees with the opinions that follow.
There is always a difficulty in applying ancient scriptures to the modern era since the cultural contexts are quite dissimilar. For instance, the Nephites lived before the invention of nation-states with distinct borders, international treaties, or constitutionally-defined rights of citizenship. Nevertheless, our study of the Book of Mormon may identify some general principles that are relevant in many different times and places.
1. Being a member of the church is like being in a family. As King Benjamin taught, “because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7), which then makes us brothers and sisters, naturally. And later, Alma explained that the covenant of baptism included being “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and . . . willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). There are times when family members get into trouble, sometimes through poor judgment or sin, but also inadvertently though bad luck or misunderstandings. Our main concern should always be the long-term welfare of those involved, both spiritually and temporally. We would hesitate to demand that abstract, harsh, inflexible punishments be applied to our own children or siblings, and we should feel the same way about our brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who were born on the other side of anational border.
2. We have obligations to strangers, and particularly to the foreigners among us. I believe the verses in scripture that are most relevant to the debate over immigration are Leviticus 19:33-34: “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you; and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or in a somewhat clearer modern translation: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (NRSV). You may recognize an echo of the Second Great Commandment here (Matt. 22:39), which is actually a quotation from the same discussion in Leviticus 19 (verse 18, to be exact), but it is sometimes tempting to ignore parts of the Old Testament that we don’t like, particularly if they were stipulations from the outdated Law of Moses. This is where the Book of Mormon comes in.
When Jesus proclaimed the end of the Law in 3 Nephi, he also gave to the Nephites two chapters from Malachi that would have particular importance in the New Testament era, and also to readers in the Latter-days. We often cite the teachingsfrom those chapters about tithing, the coming of Elijah, and genealogy, but there is also a stern warning against “adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger” (Mal. 3:5; 3 Ne. 24:5). The word “stranger” is a translation of the Hebrew ger, which is the same term that was used in Leviticus 19:34. The Lord is equating the moral seriousness of turning aside resident aliens with that of adultery.
The lexicographer William Holladay defines ger as “a man who, either alone or with his family, leaves his village and tribe, because of war, famine, pestilence, blood-guilt, etc., and seeks shelter and sojourn elsewhere, where his right to own land, to marry, and to participate in the administration of justice . . . is curtailed.” Some may respond that they have no problem with legal immigrants or greencard holders, but I’m not sure that is the right interpretation here. Resident aliens are mentioned thirty-six times in the Old Testamentin conjunction with widows and orphans as people who are especially vulnerable, and who the chosen people have a special responsibility to look after. There are few in our society more vulnerable than undocumented immigrants, and I think the Lord would not look favorably on those who say, “The law is the law, and anyone who breaks the law is undeserving of compassion, assistance, or legal protections.”
3. Agency is essential to moral responsibility. Lehi taught that “because [people] are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day” (2 Ne. 2:26). Again and again the Book of Mormon declares that people will be held responsible for their own actions, both spiritually and temporally, and Mormon strongly condemns those who suppose that little children are capable of sinning or
4. The law can be a useful deterrent, but it can also be an instrument for persecution. The Book of Mormon teaches respect for government and the law, and at Alma 1:16-17 Mormon tells us how the people were kept in line through the fear of legal consequences. Yet the cases of Abinadi in King Noah’s court and Alma and Amulek at Ammonihah demonstrate that it is possible for people to claim legal justification for prejudice and harassment. I wonder why some Americans are so passionate about illegal immigration when they are much less concerned about other crimes like, say, tax evasion.