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Study: Latter-day Saint missions change political views on immigration

Utah is a Republican-leaning state but has sometimes been an outlier on issues related to immigration

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Elder Samuel Nagliati, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, walks into the Adriatic Sea with Lucky Ughulu to baptize him.

Elder Samuel Nagliati, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, walks into the Adriatic Sea with Lucky Ughulu to baptize him in Italy on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

Courtesy of Elder Samuel Nagliati

In the midst of a week when immigration is all over the headlines, a new study says members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who come into contact with immigrants on their church missions become more tolerant and more favorable of pro-immigration policies. 

The study, slated to be published in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Politics, was based on interviews with 1,804 Latter-day Saints conducted both before and after missionary service, which is typically completed between the ages of 18- to 21-years-old. The authors of the study found that missionaries who served around immigrants, or missionaries who served in the U.S. around large Latin American populations or who were assigned to speak a language besides English saw the largest increases in tolerant attitudes toward immigrants. 

The random assignment of missionaries for their service was one of the factors that made the study more robust. (Missionaries are sent assignments from church authorities. They do not get a say in where they serve.) Missionaries in the study were assigned to 120 different countries and all 50 states. The changes in outlook toward immigration policy were seen “even months” after the end of their missions. 

According to the study, more than two-thirds of the missionaries who completed interviews self-identified as “conservative,” and three-quarters were Republican. The study’s authors, which include Brigham Young University political science professor Christopher Karpowitz, recruited participants for the study at BYU. 

According to a statement on immigration from the church’s newsroom website, “Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society. Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also encouraged its members to support refugees and has made donations to assist refugees around the world.

This week, Republican governors from Arizona, Texas and Florida have been in the news for sending undocumented immigrants to Democratic-led cities and states further north, drawing attention to the many immigrants crossing the southern border, disproportionately impacting their states. Republicans typically favor stricter enforcement of laws governing the entry of immigrants into the country and opposing amnesty programs. 

Utah, where more than half the population identifies as Latter-day Saint, is a Republican-leaning state but has sometimes been an outlier on issues related to immigration. The 2010 “Utah Compact,” which drew praise from the New York Times editorial board, advocated for a balanced and “humane” approach to immigration and received bipartisan support from current and former lawmakers alongside business and community leaders.

More recently, Republican leaders in Utah have publicly advocated for greater border security. In 2021, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined with other Republican leaders calling on President Biden “to take action on the crisis at the southern border immediately. Contrary to statements from your Administration, the border is neither closed nor secure,” the letter read.