Immigration Divides GOP Mormons in Arizona Recall Election

Immigration Divides GOP Mormons in Arizona Recall Election

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MESA, Ariz. – Maria, an undocumented Mexican, settled in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa 20 years ago because it had a Mormon temple. Already a member of the faith in her homeland, she chose to join an English-language congregation so she and her children could learn the language faster.

For years Maria lived a quiet life there, until the state started passing laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Members of her church, who “were once kind, stop being friends” of hers after she revealed to them her immigration status.

“They couldn’t conceive that someone they thought was a criminal was living in their neighborhood and sitting next to them at church,” said Maria, who asked for her last name to be withheld for fear that someone might report her to immigration authorities.

But many Mormons--Latinos and non-Latinos--would raise their eyebrows to hear Maria’s account because they don’t believe it aligns with the church’s teachings to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Their concern with better representation of their values -- and the need for a new style of leadership that would focus more on economic issues than immigration -- is one of the reasons behind their support for a Nov. 8 recall election, in which one prominent Republican Mormon aims to unseat another—an anti-immigrant hardliner—from the State Senate. Sen. Russell Pearce is the first Senate president in Arizona history to face a recall election.

Pearce, Architect of SB 1070

Pearce is the architect of SB 1070, the law now partially enjoined by federal courts, which would have made it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Arizona. Pearce has enjoyed the support of Republican Mormons in Mesa, who have kept him in office for more than 10 years.

But the political winds are starting to shift, and some of his former supporters are now drawing away. In Utah, for example, the Mormon Church signed onto the Utah Compact, a resolution passed in November 2010, setting guidelines for humane treatment of the 100,000 undocumented immigrants living in that state. The compact supports enforcement of the laws, but opposes the separation of families like Maria’s.

And when the group Citizens for a Better Arizona gathered more than 17,000 signatures in an effort to force a special recall election of Pearce this November, the first candidate to step up was – like Pearce -- a Mormon and a Republican.

Pearce has said that “anarchists” and individuals who supported open borders were behind the recall effort. But candidate Jerry Lewis couldn’t be farther from that characterization.

Lewis, 54, has lived in Mesa for almost 30 years. He is a certified public accountant, a school superintendent and a former bishop of the Mormon Church, who has the support of a strong grassroots base of longtime Mesa residents from District 18.

He likes to call Pearce “a friend” and is running a non-adversarial race so diligently that he and his supporters rarely summon direct criticism against his opponent.

“What I realized is that many, many people in Mesa want a change as do I. We want to be portrayed in a proper light; we want to focus on issues that are important to us,” said Lewis in an interview at his home. “We want a fresh voice for Mesa.”

That voice may be fresh when it comes to immigration too.

Lewis: “Protect the Family”

Even though Lewis’ campaign is not focusing on immigration -- he doesn’t oppose SB 1070, which, together with the Utah Compact, he calls “a start” -- he says that the Arizona law is incomplete when it comes to addressing the larger issue of illegal immigration.

“I believe that we need to have reform to our immigration policy that protects families, that keeps family intact, that recognizes that we are a civil society and recognizes that all people are created equally,” he said. “We can’t take such a piecemeal approach to resolving issues like this. It requires everybody coming to the table.”

In stark contrast, Pearce has promoted a strategy of “attrition by enforcement” – one that would make life in Arizona unbearable for undocumented immigrants. Early this year, Pearce was behind an effort to pass legislation aimed at changing the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bestows citizenship on anyone born on American soil.

The bill, unsuccessful partly due to Republican opposition, was an attempt to give the state discretion to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. Another bill he supported required legal documents when enrolling children in school.

Lewis noted that although many in his district wanted changes in the immigration law, they felt Pearce’s efforts “went way beyond what needed to take place--not just change that is going to be debated in courts for the next 20 years, but looking for change that would create a secure border, a sane and workable solution to the 11 to 12 million (undocumented) immigrants, who are in this country.”

Lewis said that while his political views may be informed by his spirituality, it doesn’t dictate them.

“My faith values tell me that we are all sons and daughters of God and there’s no person better than the other person. We are all created equal. To the extent that any law discriminates against any child of God, that would be a conflict of faith,” he said.

Pearce has previously said that some of his legislation is rooted in the Mormon principle of respecting the rule of law. But Bill Richardson, a Republican attorney who is also active in the Mormon church, believes that much of the Mormon community is undergoing a transformation on immigration more in tune with the church’s directives to be compassionate.

“Most of the members [of the church] that I know are embarrassed by Pearce,” Richardson said. “The right wing positions he takes are not consistent with how we think people should be treated.”

The ripple effects of anti-illegal immigration bills have taken their toll on the Mesa economy, too – which could be one of the reasons for the transformation, said Richardson, who lives in Mesa but not in Pearce’s district. The exodus of children of undocumented immigrants from the state has caused many schools to close their doors. Businesses that catered to the Latino community have shut down.

Pearce and the Mormon Church

Lewis’ supporters say they want new leadership in Mesa, someone who is a negotiator and can reach across the political aisle. Many believe that Pearce has focused too much on immigration and ignored such critical issues as creating jobs, balancing the budget and improving the economy.

Some are also unhappy with his support for cutting education funds and nearly eliminating the state health insurance program for low-income families -- measures spearheaded by Republican Governor Jan Brewer.

Among Lewis’ prominent supporters is Don Stapley, a Maricopa County Supervisor for District 2 in Mesa and respected Mormon. He observed, “If Mr. Pearce wants to paint everyone who disagrees with him as anarchist for open borders and amnesty lovers, he is wrong. I believe we should secure the border. I disagree with Mr. Pearce’s approach to immigration reform.” Emphasizing the importance of family, Stapley added, “We also need to love our neighbors and go about this in a civil way.”

“We are at a stalemate with getting anything done,” said Stephany Wright, a real estate agent, also a Republican and Mormon, who previously voted for Pearce.

Although the Mormon Church generally stays clear of direct political involvement, Matt Tolman, who heads the group Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall, is concerned about voter confusion. With support on both sides coming from prominent Mormons, Tolman, a Republican Mormon in District 18, is worried that some Lewis supporters may view such endorsements “as being sanctioned by the church when it is not.”

Asked whether some church members are misusing their position to influence voters, Pearce said, “I’m starting to believe that there are those who are abusing it, and it’s unfortunate.”

The Mormon Church in Utah was looking into this question but did not have a response as of press time.

Julie Jorgensen, a teacher and a Mormon Republican who plans to vote for Lewis, agrees that faith association can play a role. “Even though the leaders of the church can’t officially do anything, people who are leaders can come out and say who they’re voting for.”

Jorgensen jumped on board immediately in the recall effort that started last January. “At the beginning it was just a handful of us. It was like the rest of the Mormons were hiding in the shadows,” she said.

At first, Jorgensen said, church was uncomfortable for her because friends remarked that she was “too controversial.” Now, she added, “I’m really happy to see Jerry Lewis running and see all the Mormons jumping on the wagon, but I’m frustrated, saying: ‘Where were you six months ago?’ At church suddenly I’m fine, because it’s alright for the Mormons to be part of this.”

Shifts in Mesa

Two decades ago, when Maria, the undocumented immigrant, arrived in Mesa, there was only one Spanish-speaking Mormon church. Today, there are 11 congregations with a total membership of 2,000 people.

With the growth of Latino immigrants among its members, the Mormon community in Mesa has also seen up close the impact of anti-illegal immigration bills.

“It’s been harder to get more [Latino] people to join because people relate these bills with the church,” said Nora Castañeda, a U.S. citizen and a member of a Spanish-speaking Mormon Church in the contested district.

For some, the winds of change in Mesa boil down more to values than politics.

“This has turned into [more of] a moral issue than something about SB 1070,” said Maria. “This is about who we are [as Mormons] and how we are being seen by others outside the state.”