My Family is Illegal

By Tristan Call and Katy Savage

When I returned home from Central America in 2006, I learned that the state of Utah was outlawing my father.

Of course, in the exclusionary parlance of Utah politics, Antonio was already ‘illegal’. Before arriving, he had scooted under a chain-link fence and spent three days crossing the Arizona desert on foot. Back in Central America, before we left for Utah in our respective ways (me a 4-hour flight; he a multi-week trek), I remember Antonio sitting me down and explaining why he was leaving his family to work in the United States. He laid out his finances, explaining the mounting debts and the business that failed after thieves cleaned out their market stall in the middle of the night; he predicted what the border crossing would be like and how many years he expected to have to work in order to pay off his loans and return home.

That was my last night in Central America, and by then Antonio had become my father. During my first vulnerable months away from home as an 18-year-old anthropology student, I lived in his home, shared his tortillas, and helped push-start his pickup truck. I played early-morning soccer with his sons after their seminary classes at the Mormon chapel, and I went to him for advice when my own religious doubts and hopes started chasing each other in circles. Counseling was a role he was used to –he was a town elder as well as a Mormon bishop. Now, as he readied himself for a journey to Utah, he was offering himself to the uncertain hospitality of a people he felt some kinship with, but had never met outside of the ever-present LDS missionaries who lived in a room of his house, and a handful of college students like me.

In 2006, hoping for kinship seemed naïve next to the harsh reality of legislation that would exact five years in prison for helping Antonio to “reside or remain in the United States.” Antonio himself, of course, had already been outlawed as a person (which hopefully raises its own theological red flags), but laws against assisting migrants take things a bit further. The basic daily acts of kinship become illegal: giving up a spare couch to a father’s tired body, offering clothing to a brother, breaking and sharing bread with a stranger, offering encouragement or money or prayers. And the very concept of family, at the core of Mormon theology and eternal purpose, becomes an enemy of the state. My personal experience taught me to rely on Antonio as a father, and my church’s theology whispers that he is my brother, but the police insist that he remain a stranger.

Family is the training camp of resistance

Kinship, among our most basic moral urges and practical needs, clashes with the coercive power of the state to divide us and thus becomes a rebel activity. This should not be as surprising as it sounds –for most of us, what we do at home is probably our most thoroughly ingrained example of an alternative to dominant economic and political structures. If your seven-year-old son is hungry, you feed him (not tell him to stop freeloading and get a job). When your uncle gets old and has macular degeneration, you drive him to his optometrist appointments (not fire him from your family for being ‘unproductive’ and hire on a new, more efficient uncle). In the case of my family, my sister still got just as good an education, just as nice toys for Christmas, and equally excellent health care as the rest of us (even though she was born in a foreign country, Germany, while my parents were overseas). Capitalist relations of calculated costs and benefits have obviously infiltrated family dynamics a bit, but not enough to totally root out the affection, sharing, and generous nurturing that, after all, ‘family’ is supposed to evoke.

If these family sentiments were universally applied, it would seem that there would be no greater threat to relations of domination (private property, class inequality, nationality, international war, ‘representative’ government, prisons, environmental injustice, etc.), and there would be considerable precedent for alternative modes of economy and governance that don’t depend on capitalism or coercion (communal property, mutual aid, solidarity with/among the oppressed, thrift for the common good, etc.). It’s in this sense that family is at once the most conservative and liberal of institutions –conservative in the sense of an eternal devotion to conserving family solidarity and collective identity in the midst of an individualist, alienating, and consumerist society; and liberal in the sense of generously (and optimistically!) extending that devotion beyond clan boundaries. Rather than seeing ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ urges as opposite, we can understand them as two integral elements of a project for universal kinship.[1]

Civil religion and how it amputates kinship

Anyone familiar with mainstream Mormon politics knows that, in most cases, radically-universalist understandings of family are more a latent potential than a current reality. Civil religion –obedience to the state elevated to a religious zeal– trumps kinship in state and federal politics, and in plenty of personal politics as well. For example, compare these two sections of a letter from my aunt, in response my question about how her experience in the church, and the doctrine of all being spirit brothers and sisters, had affected her views toward ‘illegal’ residents in her community:

A: Having a belief of “universal Kinship” serves to help me look at others with more of an attitude that we are all family and family takes care of each other. This is how Christ taught us. For those who don’t have that belief system, there could be a tendency toward exclusiveness, only caring for one’s own, selfishness, or however you want to say it.

But after a rhetorical assertion of everyone being “one family,” she takes care to point out that this doesn’t mean we take care of each other the way we would a ‘real’ child, parent, or sibling (by sharing food, making space in our homes, visiting each other when circumstances force us apart, etc.):

B: “I don’t believe you can equate feelings of religion with feelings about people here illegally. You can put quotes around that word [illegal], but in reality, laws are being broken if you sneak into a country uninvited […] The only way I see our religion having anything at all to do with feelings about illegal immigrants is maybe being willing to be more compassionate about the plight of the people of countries who are struggling.

Her understanding of kinship seems to be that our ‘real’ family (that is, nuclear or birth family) claims literal relationships that extend to specific, material obligations like breast-feeding, driving a child to school, a couple’s pooled finances for a home mortgage, etc., but relationships of ‘universal family’ remain in the metaphorical –or, at best, the emotional– realm, provoking only sympathy and sacrament meeting talks, removed from any specific, material commitment to their well-being.

Vertical and Horizontal Kinship

There are two basic idioms of Mormon kinship, which I will call vertical and horizontal. Vertical families are tracked genealogically, from ancestor to descendant in a specific lineage, the way we’re used to tracking last names and inheritances and recessive congenital diseases. The fundamental relationship in vertical families is the parent-child bond, descending like a ladder from earliest (or most prominent) progenitor to newest infant. Vertical families are the creation of mortality, as unique spirit intelligences enter, and nine months later, exit, the real flesh-and-blood wombs of women, changing from undifferentiated[2] “children of God” to clearly categorized members of particular family ‘trees.’ Horizontal families are universal: everyone is everyone else’s spirit brother or spirit sister (even Satan and Jesus, who are described in Mormon scripture as somewhat older brothers). The fundamental relationship in horizontal families is the sibling bond, suggesting a fundamental and universal equality that began in the pre-existence, a time before mortal life when all of us were together in heaven.

Horizontal and vertical idioms coexist simultaneously[3] in Mormon doctrine and rhetoric, but the vertical form seems to dominate in practice, particularly if you look at where people put their time and money. Still, the pre-existence was apparently not the only time when we could be free of clannishness: Fourth Nephi, the chapter that depicts the most righteous years in the history of the Book of Mormon peoples, reports that:

“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people […] There were no robbers, nor murderers neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God (4 Ne 15 &17).”

My mother-in-law’s answer to the same question I asked my aunt (about how her experience in the church had affected her views toward ‘illegal’ migrants) demonstrates how one idiom of kinship can be used to dismiss another.

Tristan: “I’m writing a paper for a class at Vanderbilt divinity school this weekend, and I’m trying to explore a little bit about how the idea of everyone being brothers and sisters in the church (and spirit brothers and sisters as well) affects (or could affect) Mormons’ views on migrants and migration.”

Respondent: “I don’t have much time to write because I’m trying to finish Christmas details while helping Sara through this difficult pregnancy, but my very first thought when I read your email was that I can truly say I love people. My father was quite the opposite when it came to blacks, but I didn’t buy into his thinking.
HOWEVER, I also believe in obeying the law. ….We have so many hit-and-run accidents here that it is unbelievable, and it’s because many are illegals who don’t have insurance. Theft is also extreme; those who are caught, in most instances, have an Hispanic name.
If someone is going to be an American, they should first and foremost want to obey our laws. Love doesn’t have to be blind. Even God has consequences when His laws are broken, though He loves all of us the most of all.
All of my ancestors came as LEGAL immigrants through the front door. And I love them for that. ‘Nuff said. How are you doing?”

That last shot –“all my ancestors”– was a remarkably subtle yet pointed rejection of universal kinship. I ask if she believes that everyone is her family, and she responds by explaining that her ancestors (that is, her family) were law-abiders, unlike illegal immigrants. The lays out her own commitment to family (a pregnant daughter, Christmas plans, her bigot father) next to a diatribe about how “illegals” are ruining her community. She wouldn’t ever go so far as to actually say that those migrants aren’t her brothers and sisters –after all, she truly loves all people– instead, in response to my suggestion of horizontal equality, she emphasizes the vertical relation of family, replacing one idea of kinship with another in order to categorize, divide, and separate herself from ‘them.’

But luckily for migrants and the Mercy of God, this is not the only response.

A small insurgent siblinghood

When my father discovered that Ivan had outstayed his visa by several years, he was shocked. Ivan was a house painter from Bolivia and an active member of my parents’ Mormon ward. His wife and my mother had been assigned together to be visiting teachers to several other sisters in the ward and had become close friends. They and their two elementary-school-age daughters had eaten Christmas dinner with us when I went home from college to visit.

My father was impressed by Ivan’s industriousness: his family lived in a beautiful home that he had remodeled himself, with furniture that he had handcrafted in his time off, and he owned a business that included several employees. To my father, all this suggested an air of respectability, and so when Ivan confided that he couldn’t go back to Bolivia to visit family for fear of not being able to return, my father could barely believe it.

Ivan’s revelation re-defined what was at stake in the widespread turmoil over immigration that peaked that year (2006). My father, a government lawyer, had always had a libertarian bent but by and large maintains a firm respect for law and order; but his kinship with Ivan was suddenly outlawed, his friendship with a brother in the gospel crashed up against his obligation to the ‘law of the land,’ and the latter buckled first. He started speaking up for migrants’ rights and their good character in city council meetings; he wrote that,

“As to those who are currently in this country illegally and able to provide for themselves, such as Ivan’s family, I cannot believe that they, our community, or the nation would be better off by sending them home. On a personal level, while I believe in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law and would probably not actively assist someone to enter this country illegally, neither have I nor would I become actively involved in seeking to identify and deport those who are here illegally. I think there is a better way. I do regard Ivan’s family as my brothers and sisters in the Gospel and would feel personally diminished and saddened if they were forced to leave the country. They are people of worth, as are many, many more who are here illegally.”

This is what a gentle Mormon radicalization looks like. This is how our fellow Mormons can become empathetically sensitized to the suffering of strangers: through the pedagogy of kinship, and the liberal urge to expand its lessons to others. It isn’t the kind of radicalization that traditional revolutionaries pine for: it is no open insurrection against the government, no systematic critique of coercion or capital; not a declaration of insurgency or even any promise of a refusal to compromise in the future. Instead, it is a quiet, even a meek, refusal to accept the tyranny of the state, in one case, when it became just a little bit too much to stomach, and a decision to choose friendship and family instead.