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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  Undocumented in Utah Page 1
Cover Story

Undocumented in Utah Page 1

Driven by LDS prophecy, attorney Aaron Tarin fights for undocumented immigrants clinging to the American dream.

By Stephen Dark
Photo by Illustration by Susan Kruithof 
Posted // January 6,2010 -

Immigration Judge William L. Nixon was on the verge of tears. A Hispanic single mother convicted of fraud for using a fake social security number she bought 20 years earlier was before him in federal immigration court in the summer of 2006, facing deportation.

She had no money for a lawyer and was representing herself, since people in deportation proceedings do not get public defenders. Behind her in the small, windowless room sat her four children, one of them with Down syndrome and severe heart issues.

Nixon’s clerk was first-year law student Aaron Tarin. “It will kill me to leave my babies here, but I will if I have to leave,” Tarin recalls the mother saying. Her children, she said, needed a better life. Tarin had to restrain himself from leaping over the bench to represent her.

Nixon and Tarin went to the judge’s chambers, where they went over the case law. “It was the first time I understood the perils judges find themselves [facing] in a case where their heart is telling them to allow a person to stay in the country, and the cold, hard hammer of the law requires them to bring down the gavel,” Tarin says.

Nixon praised the woman as, Tarin says, “one of the most valiant mothers who had come before the court.” While Nixon told her he would have been “greatly pleased” to grant her legal residency in the United States, the law compelled him to deport her.

“To see an unjust result happen—candidly, it was almost like the day I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real,” Tarin says. No other area of the law, he believes, has such deficiencies and can produce such devastating human tragedy.

LawyerInset.jpgIn September 2009, not quite one year into serving as an immigration attorney in private practice, it was Tarin who was fighting back tears in public. He was providing testimony of his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its founder, Joseph Smith, at a Hispanic LDS ward in Lehi. Tarin told the congregation, many of whom were undocumented, that he knew the struggles they were going through with immigration. “I know it’s part of God’s plan. Hang in there, don’t get discouraged, continue to live the gospel, obey the commandments, and have faith something will change.” As he talked, he remembered how tense it had been as a child “living in the shadows,” while his mother struggled, ultimately successfully, for legal residence.

Tarin, now 29, grew up with Hispanic parents in the small farming community of Delta. His father came from El Paso, Texas, his mother from LDS colonies in Mexico. He recalls going into a playground and speaking Spanish to children on a merry-go-round, only for them to stare at him strangely. So, to fit in, he shunned his family’s Hispanic heritage and language.

On his LDS mission to Mexico City slum Tepito, the then-19-year-old not only rediscovered his Hispanic roots but also had a religious epiphany. Mexicans constantly asked him if he knew Britney Spears, how tall the Statue of Liberty was or if he had visited Disneyland. Many wanted to come back to the United States with him, an impulse that many attribute to economics, but one Tarin sees differently. “The real motivation is spiritual; they’re led here by the hand of God.”

He believes that Hispanics crossing the border to come to Utah are following God’s plan. In The Book of Mormon it is prophesied that close to the second coming of Jesus Christ, the people of Lamanite descent, whom Tarin interprets as being primarily Hispanics, would experience a spiritual and physical gathering in the Americas. In particular, they would come to the United States and Utah to, he says, “be exposed to the [Mormon] gospel.”

In the past four years, according to a recent Immigration Policy Center study, the percentage of Latin American LDS members has climbed 70 percent to 2.5 million, equal to 30 percent of the church’s total membership. Latinos, whether in Utah, the United States or in South America, will make up 50 percent of the LDS Church by 2020. All this, Tarin believes, is part of what the LDS faithful call the “Second Coming.”

Spend time with Tarin, and you end up seeing Utah’s immigration debate through the eyes of some of Utah’s estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Not only does he defend people facing deportation, he also fights to punish anyone who he thinks is guilty of malpractice in immigration law. When he loses in court, when families are ripped apart or law enforcement commits injustices, it’s the Lamanite prophecy he falls back on. “It’s the principle always in the back of my mind that helps me know what I’m doing,” he says. “No one came to this land except by the hand of God.” Whether in court, in jail or in his office, when a client walks in, “I definitely have a sense of providence, that it’s not entirely a coincidence that we crossed paths.”

That sense of providence, however, puts him in opposition to many in his own church who hold strikingly different views about Hispanic immigrants. When Tarin returned from his Mexican mission, he was shocked by the racism he found among the rank and file of Utah’s LDS congregations. “On the outside they were very religious and Mormon, yet they espoused views and anti-immigrant positions that, in my opinion, were against the doctrine of the church.”

Tarin often receives phone calls from confused LDS bishops and stake presidents. The economic downturn has forced many undocumented and unemployed Hispanic converts to seek financial help from the church. Yet the bishops and stake presidents fear helping them and putting themselves at odds with the law.

Tarin has no doubt that they should help. In the Lamanite prophecy, he says, Lamanites “will be nourished by the gentiles, so literally the prophecy is coming true.” Indeed, until the Utah Legislature recently targeted undocumented immigrants—especially with Senate Bill 81, which passed in 2007 and went into effect July 1, 2009—conservative Utah was seen as a welcoming state to those without legal status, with its driving-privilege cards and in-state tuition for undocumented children. Hispanic nonprofit Comunidades Unidas Executive Director Sabrina Morales says, “Immigrants came here because they felt they could live in a less fearful situation and raise their American citizen children in a state that feels more welcoming to them.”

Such a welcome, particularly from the LDS Church, makes many conservative LDS members irate. “They believe the church is harboring aliens,” Tarin says. “They’re aiding and abetting a crime […] by allowing illegal aliens to be baptized and given financial assistance.”

Yet he believes The Book of Mormon is written “for our times,” he says. “If that’s true, I don’t see how we can ignore the teaching on an issue as pressing as immigration.”

FALLING INTO THE WRONG HANDS
In 14 months of private practice, Tarin has completed 50 cases, 70 percent of which have had favorable outcomes, he says, with 64 cases still open. That still leaves 30 percent of what he says are “heartbreaking, grueling cases of screaming children and crying mothers. Each loss is brutal.” He says he’s had to come to terms with losing because, in immigration law, “the odds are stacked against the immigrants.”

Evidence of those stacked odds is apparent one early December morning outside a nondescript single-story building close to the Salt Lake City International Airport. A van with covered windows pulls up, and a dozen men in jail garb climb out in single file and shuffle, ankles and wrists manacled, into immigration court.

“Within these walls, we get to determine who participates in the American dream and who is cast out,” Tarin says.

All that stands between the undocumented prisoners and deportation that day are three pro-bono lawyers, including Tarin. The lawyers sit in a narrow, cramped corridor interviewing detainees to assess their cases. One Anglo lawyer struggling with Spanish asks Tarin to translate an English verb for him, as his detainee-client looks up at the lawyer with large, unblinking eyes.

“Como caiste en las manos de immigracion?” Tarin asks the first of several men and a woman he offers pro-bono advice to. That translates to, “How did you fall into the hands of immigration?” Roofer Jesus Lopez Hernandez says he was charged with a felony but the case was dismissed. “I’ve been here all my life, since I was 14,” he says. “I didn’t expect to be rich. Just to be poor and happy.” He wants the judge to grant him voluntary deportation, which would allow him a glimmer of hope to return legally, Tarin says.

Judge Nixon isn’t so obliging. Hernandez admits to convictions he hasn’t told Tarin about but claims they were false arrests. Before denying Hernandez’s request for voluntary deportation, Nixon says the detainee’s pattern “is it’s never his fault, yet he pleads guilty.” Hernandez shuffles off with a half-smile to deportation and a 10-year ban on legal re-entry. That half-smile, however, suggests Hernandez may attempt to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, something that Tarin says demonstrates how broken the immigration system is.

“It’s all in vain,” he says about the existing immigration system. “I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels.”

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // July 22,2010 at 09:19

to all the people that they dont have nothing good to say,1ST, PLEASE WAKE UP AND SAY A PRAYER, 2, THINK ABOUT THE GOODTHING THAT YOU HAVE IN LIFE AND ENJOY IT. DONT WORRY ABOUT THE MORMON CHURCH, THEY HAVE THEIR OWEN LIFE, TAKE CARE THEIR OWEN BUSINESS, WHY DONT THEY GETALONG AND STAY HAPPY, WHY DONT WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER, AMERICA BELONG TO AMERICAN INDEA NOT WHITE OR BROWN EVEN BLACK, LETS GROW UP, Nothing in the world cant stop to Mormon Cruch, its grow everyday, the more haters the more Babtism,

WE NEED TO FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER AND TRY TO LIVE PERFACT EACH DAY THAN WE WILL BE HAAPY, READ THE BIBLE AND PRAY EVERYDAY, GOD WILL GUID US IN EVERYTHING,

If something happen to you that make you sad , remember if u win that theirs is a good thing is readyfor you after that broplem,

LETS TRY TO LOVE AS MUCH AS WE CAN AND PRAY HARD TO BLESS ARE THOSE WHO HATE LIFE,

I KNOW THE CHURCH OF JESU CHRIST OF THE LETTER DAY SAINT IS A TRUE TESTIMONY OF GOD, I LOVE IT I DO HAVE MANY MISTAKE I CAME BACK TO CHURCH WITH REPENT AND WANT TO START A NEW LIFE NOW IM HAPPY AND LOVE EVERYTHING HAPPEN TO ME, ITS MAKE ME BETTER EACH EVERYDAY.

I LOVE YOU ALL , MAY GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 25,2010 at 00:36

I was born in Mexico and came to the US legally. This is my take:

1) "Illegal" in "Illegal Immigration" = breaking the law = not living by Church standards. When illegals broke the law by crossing the border they knew the repercussions and were willing to take that risk.

2) The "Promised Land" = all of "America," and does not mean just the United States of America. It is clear in the Book of Mormon I've read, and reread my entire life.

3) Utah is not "Zion" and it's a misconceived interpretation of the doctrine to think it is. Church leaders have clearly stated that Zion is where the gospel is in each country, not just in Utah.

Though Mr. Aaron Tarin misses the entire target on all of his major gospel and legal assumptions on this matter, he has peaked my interest in the realities of what must be done to protect anyone, even if illegal, from any crime committed against them while living in the US. If undocumented immigrants want rights they need to fight for them, but in order to fight for these rights all guilty parties must face the music equally, including them.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 7,2010 at 20:04

Thank you for writing this aritcle, I've been waiting for more people to call out the "faithful," who don't understand this very basic doctrine from the Book of Mormon. Racisim makes them blind. By the way I'm not hispanic, german and english decent.

 

Posted // January 11,2010 at 14:06 - I know Mamba, I know. I suppose it's become of little hobby of late to use knowledgeable logic against adherents of the local religion and see what comes of it. Thus far, zilcho, although none has come forward to try and prove me wrong - they pull the Mitt thing, as you said. Even I know that you cannot argue logic against faith and wouldn't bother with that, but Mormons state crazy things as fact and then disappear when their facts are proven bunk. This Lamanite crap has always bugged me and I never did think it was fair for Mormons to suddenly shun the Indians for the Mexicans. I guess that after most were wiped out, there weren't enough Indian Lamanites left to fulfill prophecy, so Mexican Lamanites are the new thing. The attorney outlined in this story feels as if he's on a God-given mission to help flood Zion with Lamanites and that's why I avoided addressing that aspect of this story - it's too laughable to take to heart. At any rate, this, uh, debating that we do here is good exercise for the mind, whether we receive a response or not. And your comments were fucking funny, as always.

 

Posted // January 11,2010 at 09:16 - C,mon, Hayduke, you're stirring the ashes of righteousness now. Don't you know that most members of organized religion only pay attention to the parts of their documents and heritage that make sense for their individual and group-think needs and leanings? Think Republicans and the Constitution. Remember, you only have to pay attention to the parts that speak to you and for you. The remaining 90% is optional, apparently, including defining what kind of person Jeeeebus Christ was. In most American churches, he's light-skinned and looks more like Steve Reeves in a gladiator movie from the 60's. He was, if he really existed, a Palestinian. See any light-skinned Palestinians around? Me neither.Fact is, he probably looked more like Osama Bin Laden than Brad Pitt on vacation. The Latter-Day deal seems to be a work in progress. Got a glaring publicity problem? Do what Mitt Romney does: Change your mind and refuse to address your previous position. I remember the 70's revelations to allow blacks (men only, of course) to hold the LDS priesthood. Blacks went from cursed to accepted in the blink of an eye...an eye that probably napped a lot every afternoon. The fact that a claim was made that divine intervention caused it made Mormons looks even goofier: They had to be instructed by a supernatural God to stop behaving like assholes. It was bad for business.

 

Posted // January 8,2010 at 08:33 - The basic Mormon Doctrine regarding so-called Lamanites IS racist. I'd be happy to dig up quotes from your favorite leaders for illustration, if you like.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 7,2010 at 10:03

AngelKiss is retarded.

 

Posted // January 7,2010 at 10:28 - once again i have to agree with you Geo, you must be very wise.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 6,2010 at 21:00

 

Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me

Are about the Lamanites in ancient history.

Long ago their fathers came from far across the sea,

Giv'n the land if they lived righteously.

Lamanites met others who were seeking liberty,

And the land soon welcomed all who wanted to be free.

Book of Mormon stories say that we must brothers be,

Giv'n the land if we live righteously.

 

2 Nephi Ch. 2

2 Nephi 10:18-19

1 Nephi 13:12-25

D&C 49:24

 

Geo
Posted // January 8,2010 at 11:45 - Well, since i'm brown and a good person... does this mean i'm going to turn into a white person? That would suck... nothing against it, I just like my skin tone.