What do Utahns know about the LDS Church’s stance on immigration?

Just what do Utahns believe about the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on immigration? Paul Rolly in his column expresses incredulity at calls from Salt Lake County Republican convention delegates to overturn the state’s recent guest-worker law (HB116). Senator Curt Bramble says the Church’s position on immigration has been “distorted,” and the Church itself responded yesterday with a clarification about its position. In this statement, the Church expresses appreciation for all the bills passed by the Utah legislature, including HB116, which is referenced by name.

In a recent poll, we asked Utahns about their opinions of these immigration bills and also about their impressions of the LDS Church’s position on those bills.1 Here’s one question we asked:

“Below is a brief description of four immigration bills recently passed by the Utah state legislature and signed by the governor. Please indicate how much you favor or oppose each bill.”

HB116 authorizes a guest-worker program that will allow undocumented people to pay fines and stay in Utah. HB469 allows Utah citizens to sponsor immigrants. HB497 requires local police to check the immigration status of those arrested on felony or serious misdemeanor charges. HB466 establishes a partnership with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to allow workers to come to Utah using federal visas.
Strongly or Somewhat Oppose 32% 14% 14% 17%
Neither Oppose nor Favor 9% 13% 5% 13%
Strongly or Somewhat Favor 52% 62% 79% 58%
Haven’t heard enough about it to have an opinion 7% 11% 2% 13%

A majority of respondents favored each of the bills. This majority ranged from 52% in the case of HB116 (the guest worker program) to 79% in the case of HB497 (which emphasizes enforcement by local police departments). Most respondents had opinions about the bills, with those saying they hadn’t heard enough to form an opinion never exceeding 13%. Opinions appeared to be most well developed about the enforcement measure, with only 2% of respondents claiming they hadn’t heard enough about HB497.

After asking respondents about their own opinions, we also asked them for their “impressions of how much the LDS Church favors or opposes each bill.” The same descriptions that were given on the previous question were provided on this question. The percentage of respondents reporting that they didn’t know the Church’s position on each bill is reported below:

HB116 (Guest Worker) HB469 (Sponsoring immigrants) HB497 (Enforcement by local police) HB466 (Partnership with Nuevo Leon)
Don’t Know 44% 45% 46% 46%

The results show considerable uncertainty among Utah voters. Between 44% and 46% of respondents claimed they didn’t know the Church’s position on the bills passed by the state legislature. This level of uncertainty persists even among the active Mormons who responded to our survey (42% of whom said they didn’t know the Church’s position about HB116, for example) and among active LDS who were also Republicans (43% of whom said they didn’t know their church’s stand on HB116).

If we exclude those who said they didn’t know the LDS Church’s position (see table below), a majority of the remaining respondents believed it favored each of the bills. For example, approximately 60% of respondents who said they knew the Church’s position believed that it somewhat or strongly favored HB116. By contrast, 22% believed the Church somewhat or strongly opposed the guest worker bill, and 18% believed it was neutral. The numbers are roughly similar with respect to the other bills, with especially large percentages of respondents believing that the Church supported HB469.

HB116

(Guest Worker)

HB469 (Sponsoring immigrants) HB497 (Enforcement by local police) HB466 (Partnership with Nuevo Leon)
Strongly or Somewhat Oppose 22% 12% 17% 14%
Neither Oppose nor Favor 18% 16% 23% 19%
Strongly or Somewhat Favor 60% 72% 59% 67%

The fact that as many as one-fifth of respondents who claimed to know the LDS Church’s position believed that it opposed a bill like HB116 shows both the significant lack of clarity among Utahns about the LDS Church’s stance and the challenge of moving individuals away from their predispositions.

A more sophisticated regression analysis reveals that among those who had an opinion about the Church’s position, correctly perceiving its support for HB116 was not associated with political party, gender, religion, or even the level of activity in the LDS Church. Instead, the strongest finding is that those who supported HB116 themselves (controlling for partisanship and religion) were also more likely to believe the Church supported the bill, too. In other words, Utahns viewed the LDS Church’s positions through the lens of their own attitudes. The more they supported bills like HB116, the more they believed that the Church supported it, too, regardless of party or religious affiliation.

In addition, those who were more educated were significantly more likely to believe that the Church supported the immigration bills. This connection between education and knowledge of the Church’s position may be enhanced because church leaders did not express their immigration positions through ecclesiastical channels such as an address in General Conference or a formal letter to congregations. (This may also help explain the lack of connection between religiosity and knowledge of LDS stances on the bills.) Instead, the Church made its position known through the media, its website, and its presence at the governor’s signing ceremony at the end of the legislative session. The better educated may have been more likely to attend to these sources of information. While we have no direct measures of media consumption on the most recent UVP, considerable research has shown a strong connection between education and newspaper readership, for example.

Because the UVP was conducted early in the month of April, it does not capture the recent efforts of the LDS Church to clarify its position. Research on public opinion does indicate that the more institutions speak out on certain topics, the more likely those messages are to be received by the population. More opportunities to encounter these messages should reduce some of the uncertainty that voters have about the Church’s position, especially among certain subgroups. As recently as the end of this year’s legislative session and despite the presence of LDS leaders at the governor’s signing ceremony, however, Utahns still had considerable uncertainty about the Church’s support for Utah’s immigration bills. Where these bills are concerned, it appears that many Utahns still haven’t received the message.

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