Since 2000, the number of Spanish-speaking members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the United States has doubled. Many of those Latino Mormons lack legal documentation, which poses a problem for the church.
Young Mormons are called to serve missions — two years on the road, trying to convert strangers to the faith. So what happens when Mormons without papers come of legal age, and set off on their missions?
Isaac’s story sheds some light on this quiet demographic. Isaac is his middle name. When his father, Rafael, was 17 years old in Mexico City, he got a job building a Mormon church. The local bishop took an interest in him, and they became fast friends.
“My dad decided to read the Book of Mormon and be baptized,” Isaac said.
Rafael was not alone: If the Mormon Church continues to grow at current rates, it will be majority Latin American by 2015.
Nine years later after Rafael converted, when Isaac was 18 months old, his family moved from Mexico to the U.S. When Isaac was 5, his father died in a car crash. Isaac immediately felt responsible for his mother and little sister.
“Do you see that little star?” Isaac asked his 2-year-old sister a few nights after the accident. “That’s dad. He’s watching over us right now. So don’t worry. I’m here to help you out.”
And he did. As a teenager, Isaac would slip $20 bills into his mother’s purse, money he earned mowing lawns. And when Isaac was 18, he was getting excited to set out on his Mormon mission. But then, his mother told him something completely unexpected.
“She told me, ‘I don’t know how to put this in words to you. You’re not a U.S. citizen. You are an illegal immigrant from Mexico,'" he said.
The Pew Research Center estimates there are more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants of working age in Utah, where Isaac lives. While those immigrants are filling the ranks of many churches, they are putting the Mormon church in a particularly tricky spot.
Tony Yapias is a Peruvian immigrant, a Mormon and a longtime community organizer in Salt Lake City. He says he has known hundreds of missionaries who lacked papers. The issue became critical, he says, in 2009, when immigration agents in an Ohio airport arrested a Latino missionary.
“That had a profound impact in the church,” Yapias said. “It became a concern for parents, a concern for missionaries.”
The Mormon church declined to comment on this story, but it has clearly taken steps along the way to protect itself and its missionaries. In 2005, it backed an amendment by a Utah Senator to a federal law giving churches immunity for having undocumented immigrants do volunteer service, including serving missions. Over the years, the church has developed an evolving "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy on its undocumented missionaries.
“When the immigration issue started heating up, at some point the church knew they were undocumented, and they knew they could no longer send them outside the country on missions," Yapais said.
So by the time Isaac went on his mission, the church was encouraging these missionaries to accept assignments in the U.S., off airplanes, within a long drive from home.
On his mission in Denver, the problems Isaac faced were less legal and more spiritual.
“I remember being rejected constantly,” he said. “It was nonstop. We’d knock on the door and they’d insult us.”