The following post is slightly modified from a comment I left in answer to a reader’s question, in the comments from the Why Mormons Should Consider Backing Obama post. The question was concerned with illegal immigrants being able to have temple recommends (as well as, in some cases, high-level local leadership positions), considering the Latter-day Saint belief “of obeying, honoring and sustaining the law” (Article of Faith 12). I admit in addressing this question that I am nowhere near an expert on this issue. The following represents simply a few tentative, humble thoughts on the matter. I would be curious to hear what others think.
First, we need to reconceptualize what it means to live the laws of the land. One thing to keep in mind is that it is NOT fundamental to LDS doctrine to keep the laws of the land. There are times when the Lord’s people have violated the laws of the land, even directly by His command. Even the prohibition of polygamy was not really about keeping the laws of the land (it was in fact kept in opposition to federal laws for a time, in the midst of Joseph Smith’s teachings to obey the laws of the land). Right now we are in an almost completely cooperative spirit with U.S. laws (as are other Saints in their respective countries), and certainly no one needs to worry too much about the Mormons suddenly becoming a rebel group anytime soon; however, it certainly could be that conditions could change in the world in which Latter-day Saints certainly would rebel against the government. Imagine, for example, if there was a law that mandated LDS temples to do same-sex sealings. Do we honestly think the Church would comply with this mandate? Of course not (not without a really startling revelation, I suppose).
Another thing to keep in mind is that it is really difficult to talk about violating the laws of the land, when it comes to “illegal” immigrants. Are they violating the laws of the country for which they are a citizen? (I’m actually not sure about this…is it against, say, Mexican law, to cross the border?) In times of war, Latter-day Saint soldiers have broken the laws of OTHER nations (that they were in) left and right without any Church action. And we would certainly applaud, rather than accuse, Church members who might have hid Jews from the Nazi party (contrary to German law). Thus, there are times when a “human law” (not to mention a “divine law”) transcend a technical, posted “civic law.”
You could say that undocumented immigration is against U.S. law, but these immigrants are not American. Thus, illegal immigrants are never arrested or prosecuted simply because of their illegal status (as far as I know); the most that would be done is for them to be deported, which is not really the same as being penalized via U.S. law. Actual criminal prosecution occurs only if immigrants violate U.S. law after they are already in the country (as far as I know), which of course could lead to prosecution in their OWN country, depending on their country’s laws.
However, I suspect that at the end of the day, this issue doesn’t have to do with getting nitpicky about what is lawful and what is not. It could have to do, however, with a genuine acknowledgment of the gray area concerned with violating certain laws, especially in the wake of what might be termed greater “laws” regarding human dignity and family care.
There are certain laws that are so commonly violated that they are not really laws in a meaningful sense (many cities, counties, and states, for example, still technically have very bizarre laws that almost everyone violates on a regular basis and which are never enforced). If a law is not enforced, you can hardly call it a law of the land in a meaningful sense. Take speeding, for example; how many Latter-day Saints regularly speed (technically, not recklessly) on the interstate? Should they be disqualified for a temple recommend? What if they do it every day? once a week? once in the past year? How is this situation judged? (This question is real interesting in Utah, considering that almost everyone without exception surpasses the 65 MPH speed limits on the I-15 in Salt Lake and Utah counties.) We could also consider the large number of Latter-day Saints who are guilty of very minor copyright infringement. Or littering. Or minor trespassing.
I like the speed limit example the best. Anyone who drives on the interstate knows that there really are two laws. There is the posted civic law and there is the human law. Under the posted law, nearly all are guilty. However, under the human law, it could actually be more dangerous for someone to diligently maintain a 65 MPH speed limit. This human law says that you need to stay with the flow of traffic. Or you — or someone else — might not survive.
Might we liken illegal immigration with needing to stay in line with the flow of human traffic, so to speak? Yes, technically it is illegal. But some people really have to do it, so the argument goes, or they or their family might not survive.
I really don’t know what I think about all this; please know that I am throwing this stuff out as interesting musings more than anything. Also, this post has nothing to do with what should be done regarding U.S. enforcement of illegal immigration.
But I think we can be confident with one conclusion: Some laws are more important than others, and certain laws we can hardly punish anyone in the Church for technically violating. I think that Church leaders are simply in touch with these greater human laws. Hopefully all of us can follow suit and stay with the flow of “human traffic” on this issue, regardless of what we think about the immigration issue.