My Family is Illegal


January 7, 2011 by tristan 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. 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 out of the country 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.

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:

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).

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 1:15 &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.

published simultaneously on Feminist Mormon Housewives

15 thoughts on “My Family is Illegal

  1. James says:

    Tristan, you bring up some interesting, difficult, and heavily entrenched ideas of the traditional Mormon. It’s puzzling to me why members think Mormonism and jingoism are so well aligned. Zion is not an exclusive aspiration, but wholly inclusive. The righteous principles have certainly been taught again and again, yet the way many Mormons choose to govern themselves seems so contradictory to the true Gospel of love your neighbor as yourself. It’s discouraging.

    Ironically, our heritage is one that comes from arguably one of the largest movements of civil disobedience in early US history. Polygamy was certainly not a bunch of Mormons putting the laws of the land first; it was not “obeying and sustaining the law.” It was God’s law. David Pulsipher from BYU-I spoke at a BYU symposium last year. He says, “From 1862, when plural marriage was first declared illegal in Utah Territory, until 1890, when church leaders officially abandoned the practice—the Latter-day Saint people consciously and publicly defied what they considered to be an unconstitutional series of laws.” More here:

    The editorial published and written by the Desert News a couple months back was interesting. They said, “At the end of the day, what we do about immigration will say more about “us” than it will about “them.” We need to find a way so that they, and we, are one.” Allusion to Zion?

  2. Ron Madson says:

    I am moved and have a little less ignorance thanks to your article! Thank you for your contribution.

  3. Very, very interesting; well done. You are gifted at articulating difficult and often-divisive concepts, and I hope that this well-written and intensely personal essay is circulated far and wide, within the LDS church ad beyond. Thank you!

  4. John Edvalson says:


    This was well thought out and I think you make a very clear and dare I say moderate argument (especially coming from you). This piece reminds me of some of our conversations. Unfortunately I think there is something inherent in human beings that makes us separate people into categories of strangers and fellow citizens, be it language, dress or economic status. Our creation of states and empires directly correlates to ideas about vertical kinship and patriarchy. Plus there must be something in our evolutionary past, or if it makes Mormons comfortable, the “natural man” that causes vertical kinship to trump horizontal kinship. I really enjoy that dichotomy. Well said.

  5. Forest Call says:

    I think what it all boils down to is the mismanagement of the worlds resources. I mean there are people willing to work hard and do work hard that can’t afford to feed there family’s, while people that received a giant check from there parents don’t work hard and wouldn’t no how to work hard if they had to, have enough extra money to build a basketball court in there house. Money, Money, Money, Money, Money. Until people realize that the money system we live in is the problem causing all the problems in society, this will never be a humane planet. The worlds people need to start functioning like a human body functions if you get a cut, the body sends help and heals the wound. If we have starving people in Africa, we send people to heal the wound. Do you get my drift? There would be no need for borders if no one took advantage over another threw the use of money. Rich countries take the resources from poor countries with a weapon called money so they can live in abundance while the poor country has to live in scarcity, that is called taking advantage thew the use of money. It’s messed up….. So I suggest that if you work for a company that is taking advantage of others instead of helping others, you either work towards changing the company or you quit. It’s time to get to the root of the problem. Study Jacque Fresco’s ideas for a resourced based economy rather than the money based economy we live in. His project is called The Venus Project.

  6. Ben says:

    Very close to my sentiments. Thanks for the thoughts.

  7. Kareen Thornock says:

    Wow, this is a very good and thought-provoking essay. It’s very timely for me. I struggle with the concept of kinship constantly. I notice the dividing off happening, all around me, and even within my own thinking, frequently. That troubles me.
    One line in your father’s response is a real trigger for me. He said, referring to his friend Ivan and his family, that they are people of real worth. Now, I completely agree. I believe ALL people are people “of real worth”. What troubles me is the implication that only SOME people, such as have nice homes and businesses, are people of REAL worth. So the single mom working two jobs–who has no time for building furniture, and employs no other residents (whether citizens or not)–is she worthy or worthless? I KNOW all people have GREAT worth in the sight of God, and yet we humans are so very short-sighted. I have at least two people in my family who actually SAY that some people are worthless. These family members of mine have such a skewed perspective that they categorically dismiss entire populations. These family members whom I love say things that evoke a response in me that resembles their response to the populations they despise. So, while inside I cringe and collapse and my whole being wants to run away screaming, I remain calm outwardly. I do things like shaking my head with my mouth tightly closed at first. Then I speak up a little. But I hate to contend. I do debate some. And I am faced with the realization, over and over again, that my stewardship is here, with these beloved (what do I call them???) darlings who drive me NUTS, and I am hoping that my conviction of all people’s divinity will someday be found to have seeped out and been soaked up by all those I love. I’m often tempted to run off and help the starving folks in Africa, and to an extent, I have been involved in their rescue. The adrenaline rush or pride fix or both seem so urgently rewarding. For me, I have to check my motives constantly, and come back home to my children, spouse, parents, and extended family. I have to radiate love at home before I can expect it to extend beyond. My hope is that my present emphasis and focus on vertical kinship will help us transcend the vertical. Just as independence must precede interdependence, I think that vertical kinship must precede horizontal. So, choosing one over the other is not final. It’s very temporary. But it’s still important. It’s like we are all links in a chain link fence, and everyone has to stay connected strongly to the links surrounding him or herself, in order to be connected to the whole.

    • tristan call says:


      I think your response gets perfectly to the main dilemmas of kinship and love, chain-link-fence metaphor and all. Thank you!

      On your point about all people having worth- this is why I call it a “gentle” radicalization. It has the surprising capacity to be imaginatively applied far beyond its source, so people like my father might decide to oppose separation of migrant families in general, not just Mormon or middle-class ones. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that because we learn to love one particularly friendly or closeby “other”, we will be committed to repeating the experience. Just as often it can be the opposite.

      That’s why it is our work right now to make sure that our friends, families, and neighbors don’t let war against our migrant neighbors continue- because it is happening now, and it is a war against them. They are having their doors kicked down, workplaces raided, police guns pointed at their children while their parents are kidnapped and sent to detention centers and deported. This is a time that will test us as Christians.

  8. tariq says:

    Excellent article, Tristan; a truly Christian analysis. In fact, a truly Christian Anarchist analysis; the idea that the Christ-like principle of treating everyone as brothers and sisters trumps man-made rules concerning borders and papers. It reminds me of a Mormon family I know (whose name I won’t say), who lives in the U.S. close to the border with Mexico. This family is rather conservative in many ways, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found this out about them. Undocumented immigrants cross through their property from time to time as they make their way into the U.S. Rather than acting like good citizens, and call the authorities on these tired, hungry, thirsty, poor people who have been traveling on foot for more miles than most of us would drive, this LDS family follows the lesson Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The whole family gets together, including the children, and they make food for the travelers, and provide them with water and whatever else is needed. Never do they judge the immigrants, notify authorities, or ask for compensation. For this LDS family, their obligation is to serve their undocumented brothers and sisters the way Christ taught, not to call in Caesar’s troops to crack down with “law and order.” It warms my heart to know that even in these days when clowns like Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney types seem to dominate the discourse within the Church, there are still LDS people whose allegiance to Christ is greater than their allegiance to the state or the party.

  9. Jessica says:

    Wow! I am really glad I saw a link on a friends Facebook page to this post. I have some really great things to think about. Thank you for the time and energy you spent writing this. I don’t have strong feelings about immigration, or many political hot topics for that matter, in either direction. I life my life in a self imposed bubble of motherhood with four small children taking up all of my energy and brain power. What political conversations I do have are often frustrating and filled with extreme right wing talk radio rhetoric so that I have recently started avoiding these types of conversations actively. Your post showed me a refreshing way to look at this serious issue. I can still have a testimony of the Church and believe that my brothers and sisters can find an easier temporal life. There doesn’t have to be a conflict between Church and State.
    Thank you!

  10. Riley Rackliffe says:

    You dance around the objections that were raised. We have a responsibility to love everyone, true. We have a responsibility to obey the law and encourage others to do the same, true. The question I think most of us face is how to justify both commands. Now at pure face value it seems like you can love someone who is doing bad things. (illegally entering the country is a bad thing because it breaks a law. Whether the law is just or not is another issue that might lead to the ultimate truth. Are we still obligated to obey bad laws? I know of no scripture that exempts us. But that’s another issue) I believe you can love illegal immigrants and still disapprove of what they did. Just like you love your brother or cousin or whatever even when he does something wrong. You disapprove the action, not the person. I cannot conscientiously encourage my brother to break the law. But I can still love him. Now if he breaks the law should I go and change the law so he isn’t breaking it? That isn’t the way it works. You don’t change the definition of sin to cover your mistake (if the law is wrong there may be an exception here).

    Story time. I love illegal immigrants even though I cannot justify their immigration. I served a mission in Southern California with the Spanish people there. I will never get away from the immigration issue. Two days ago I returned to my mission field to baptize the youngest daughter of a family I had taught two years ago. They had fallen on hard times since I first met them, the mother is now living with her four daughters in a rented one bedroom house behind a member’s house. Pretty good compared to conditions in other countries perhaps but terrible conditions for people in California. The father is currently in a immigration hospital in San Diego. He was deported 9 months ago to El Salvador and attempted to cross over again in December. He was caught and injured requiring expensive painful surgery on his arm. (I’m pretty sure our government paid for it). He is healing before going before a judge to determine his fate. This is one story among thousands to millions. Does the desire to be with his family justify him crossing the border? He wouldn’t have a family here if he hadn’t crossed the border illegally 13+ years ago so perhaps his current problem is simply a result of that initial decision. Sin compounds itself I suppose. Would I ever call the police and ask them to deport such a man? No. While he is the only one in the family that is not baptized now and continues with his drinking and other bad habits he is still the father of 3/4ths of those girls and in spite of my commitment to the law I cannot separate them (unless he was a bad influence on his kids). I think my commitment to family is more important, at least in this case.

    We can love people who do bad things but we should not encourage them to do so. I’ve never been to Latin America so i don’t know what things are like there. But I do know what illegal immigrants go through here and knowing that, and believing the the rule of law, I would strongly encourage potential immigrants to stay in their home countries and build them up. It sounds like I agree with your father, he is a wise man.

    So what do we do about the immigrant problem? It is a problem and we probably should do something if we want to increase the general level of happiness in the world.

    • tariq says:

      Riley, if it is automatically a sin to break the law, even if the law is unjust, then by your own logic, Daniel of the Old Testament was sinning when he disobeyed the King who made it illegal for Daniel to pray to his God. Parley P. Pratt, an apostle under Joseph Smith, was certainly a sinner, because he broke many laws, including assaulting a prison guard, escaping from prison, contempt of court, and running away from a lawman who was transporting him, to name only a small portion of Brother Pratt’s long list of crimes. According to your logic, the people who took part in the civil disobedience campaigns of the civil rights movement were wrong to do so, because it was illegal. The German soldiers who defied Hitler by deserting their posts and joining the French underground to fight against the Nazis were certainly sinning, because their actions were illegal according to their government. The Boston Tea Party patriots were sinning. The Continental Congress itself was an extralegal body guilty of sedition according to the government, and every patriot who participated in expelling British authority from the colonies was breaking the law. I could go on like this for pages, but I think I’ve made my point.

      Just because something is illegal according to some man-made government, that does not necessarily mean it is a sin. As far as I can tell, the sin is not in your friend who crossed the border without papers, rather, the sin is in the border itself. In the Book of Mormon, the most righteous society was the one that had “no manner of -ites.” That means no borders, no nations, no classes, but all were one and together partook of “the heavenly gift”. If you really, truly believe in the Book of Mormon, then you have no business upholding the sanctity of borders, and you certainly have no business calling people who cross borders illegally “sinners.”

      • Jenne says:

        Tariq, let me also add that according to Riley’s logic the workers of the underground railroad who helped to free slaves were also sinning.

  11. Karla Bennion says:

    Hi Tristan and Katy. I sent a link to this post (from the fMh version) to my son who is an immigration attorney and rights activist in Philadelphia, and he referenced it on his blog Citizen Orange (sorry, I don’t know how to do links here–I’m probably too old). You and he should communicate. He’s not LDS anymore but still interested in the intersection of Mormonism and politics.

    Also, John says hello.

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