The recent suggestion by a presidential hopeful for a moratorium on immigration to the U.S. by members of the Muslim faith is, I would believe, morally repugnant to most Americans. It is not, however, without precedent. As is often the case with religious discrimination, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already have experienced what is only being suggested for others.
In the late 1800s, Mormons were increasingly viewed as religious extremists and a threat to American culture and national security. The Utah territory was unlike any other in that it had been established and populated almost exclusively by members of one faith, and the U.S. government questioned whether Mormons would give primary allegiance to the president or their prophet. This led to a number of decisions aimed at neutralizing the power of the Church (including revoking the Church’s incorporation, essentially declaring that Mormons were not a Church at all).
One of those decisions related to immigration. The Church had been remarkably successful in its missionary efforts outside of the United States, and in particular in Great Britain. Thousands of people there were converting to Mormonism, and Church leaders encouraged them to emigrate to the U.S. and then move on to “Zion,” i.e. the Utah territory. And come they did, giving rise to fears of a Mormon invasion of the American west.
The government wanted to stem the tide of Mormon immigrants, but they were not so brazen as to suggest that a religious test be placed on prospective immigrants. Instead, they identified the Mormon practice they found most offensive–polygamy–and passed legislation in 1891 excluding polygamists from coming to the United States. (This legislation was also motivated by the desire to limit Chinese immigration, as many Chinese came to the U.S. with concubines, rather than their primary wives. Thus Congress could legislate racial and religious prejudice in one blow.) To this day, the exclusion of polygamists is entrenched in U.S. immigration law, and any person seeking permanent residency must check a box on the application stating whether they are coming to the U.S. to practice polygamy.
Immigration law long has been used for social engineering. When we make decisions about who we will admit to the United States, we are in effect deciding what we want the country to look like. We set quotas for specific nations of origin. We have a “diversity lottery” to encourage immigration from countries that typically have a low number of immigrants. We give preference to the rich (investment of a million dollars in the U.S. essentially buys you a green card) and the well-educated, to scientists and sports heroes.
The wisdom of these various quotas can be debated. What we absolutely should not do is permit immigration law to be driven by ideals that run contrary to our moral, political and constitutional traditions. While our current policies may seek to cherry-pick the “best and brightest” from other lands, we should not impose a religious litmus test for those seeking to come here. Mormons should be (and the recent news release from the Church supports this) particularly sensitive to this issue. It has not been that long since we were on the wrong side of such efforts, and I think it is the height of hypocrisy for us to support efforts to shut the doors to people of any other faith.