Saturday, April 25, 2009

Salt Lake Tribune Drops The Ball: The Whole Story Behind The LDS Missionary Who Got Busted At Cincinnati Airport For Illegal Immigration

Update April 30th: The Salt Lake Tribune has published a new report updating the previous information. They even give the LDS missionary a name - Jose Calzadillas. Hat tip to Mormonism Unveiled for the information.

On April 25th, 2009, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article entitled "Missionary's arrest sparks discussion, fear", which addresses the issue of illegal immigrants being called on missions by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, it was a poorly-organized and disjointed article which actually triggered more questions than answers.

The article leads off with an account of an LDS missionary who turned out to be an undocumented immigrant. Regarding him, the Tribune stated, "Early last week [April 8th], a missionary was detained at the Cincinnati airport for 'lacking necessary documentation to board his flight home'".

That was it. No report on where he was originally from. No report on how he was spotted. No report on the outcome. Absolute suck-ass reporting.

Fortunately, ByCommonConsent picked up on this story. And from some of the comments posted thereon, we get a bigger picture. Note that some of the information cited by the commenters is second-hand. In summary, the missionary in question has a valid passport, but his visa had expired during his mission. His family only lives four hours away from the mission location, and could have driven down to pick him up. Nevertheless, he chose to take the flight out of Cincinnati, and that's when he got caught (the mission president did NOT insist that he take the flight).

After his arrest, he was taken to a county jail in Kentucky. The jail authorities initially denied the Mission President and Stake Presidents in the area standard ministerial access to see him. He had no toiletries when he was arrested, as he didn’t expect to need them, and he was not provided any in jail. He had to wait a full week before being allowed to shower. Then he was transferred to another facility in Chicago, and the Mission President was granted normal access to him. Rumour has it that the Church has hired legal counsel to try to help the missionary. Ironically, when jail authorities found out the missionary has started teaching the Gospel discussions to another inmate, they transferred the other inmate.

The missionary in question is described by those who know him as a "wonderful young man", and one person also stated that he had "never met a better person or better missionary". The missionary ended his mission as a Zone Leader in the local stake. Not that any of this is particularly germaine to his residency status, but it does provide a highly-favorable character reference.

Elder Jeffrey Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve responded to the Tribune's enquiries. Holland stated that this is the first time he's heard of a missionary being arrested by immigration officials while serving. "There's been an ongoing discussion of this for 15 years. These kind of incidents, or anything like it, would continue that discussion," said Holland, who is a member of the Missionary Executive Council. "We're always trying to do, always and forever, exactly what's legal, and in the spirit of that, be fair to everyone on the religious side, on the spiritual side, to have the spiritual benefits of [serving a mission]."

The LDS Church has changed its policies about mission calls for undocumented immigrants over time. Previously, they had to return to their country of origin for extended periods of time and then could serve. However, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, inserted language into a 2005 agricultural bill that absolves religious organizations of criminal liability for allowing their undocumented members to perform volunteer service, including mission work.

Church leaders do make certain accommodations for undocumented missionaries, including calling them only to missions within the United States. But leaders acknowledge the missionaries' potential legal jeopardy. But the missionaries are still willing to go, knowing the risk.

One question: Should this missionary be considered just as "illegal" as someone who sneaks into the country and either doesn't get documented, or else gets false documentation? After all, the missionary did have a valid passport, but simply allowed his visa to lapse. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to allow him to renew his visa, but pay a hefty fine for having allowed it to lapse. It doesn't appear as if the missionary's original intent was to enter the country illegally.

Perhaps immigration reform isn't quite as cut and dried as I have believed.

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