After seven years in office, immigration hawks still hadn’t gotten what they wanted out of George W. Bush. Much to the contrary: In his final year in office Bush called on Congress to create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. With two potentially history-making candidates on the Democratic ticket—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—and with no strong and viable anti-immigration champion in the slate of GOP contenders, things were feeling desperate on the federal level for those seeking tough immigration reform in 2008.
Into the fray stepped an army of state lawmakers eager to force the federal government’s hand, including Utah’s dominantly Republican Legislature. Its members sponsored a litany of bills that year to limit privileges and impose penalties for tens of thousands of people illegally working and living here. The session stirred protests, counter-protests and counter-counter protests, each more heated than the last. But in the height of the debate, it was the little-attended opening event of Westminster College’s “Beyond Borders and Fronteras” colloquy that may have changed the course of history.
Among the religious leaders seated behind a table on the stage that evening in Salt Lake City was Marlin Jensen, a rosy-cheeked, gray-haired man in a pinstriped suit and yellow tie. Looking over his wire-rimmed glasses, he leaned into the microphone.
“Immigration questions are questions dealing with God’s children,” he said in a soft but assertive voice. “With decisions hanging in the balance that have such significant consequences, I believe a more thoughtful and factual—not to mention humane—approach is warranted.”
Utah State legislators, Jensen said, should “slow down, step back and carefully study and assess the implications and human costs involved.” No one familiar with the lifelong Democrat would have been surprised. Jensen was well known for relatively progressive views at odds with the politics of many of his Mormon brethren, and the longtime member of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Seventy had often taken stands against political intolerance.
But this was different. Jensen wasn’t speaking as a Democrat. He wasn’t even speaking for himself. “I was assigned to come here by the First Presidency of the church,” he said after the event, referencing Mormonism’s three most senior leaders, including President Thomas S. Monson.
A few miles away on Utah’s Capitol Hill, the legislative train was already moving at full steam. And by that session’s end, the legislature had passed a slate of bills aimed at undocumented workers and their families in Utah. One made it more difficult for illegal residents to find jobs. Another tightened restrictions on driving privileges. Another heightened the state’s role in immigration enforcement. At best, Salt Lake’s pundits surmised, Jensen’s words had slowed down the persecution. But around Mormon dinner tables and LDS stake centers across the state, a spark had been lit.
And a hundred miles to the south, an erstwhile legislator was considering the intersection of his faith and his future role as a political leader.