By RUSSELL CONTRERAS, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — When Honduran-born Antonella Cecilia Packard converted to the Mormon Faith 20 years ago, she said it was like "coming home."
The Catholic-educated Packard, who grew up in "the middle of Mayan ruins," appreciated the faith's strong sense of family and conservative values. She also saw her own history in the Book of Mormon with stories of migrations, tragedies and triumphs of a people many Mormons believe are the ancestors of some present-day Latinos.
But two decades after her conversion while a college student at Mississippi State, the 43-year-old Packard finds herself on a new mission: defeating Mitt Romney and any Mormon politician who betrays what she sees as a basic Mormon principle of protecting immigrants.
As Romney continues to seek the Republican presidential nomination while rarely discussing his faith, a growing number of vocal Hispanic Mormons say they intend to use Mormon teachings as a reason to convince others not to vote for him. They have held firesides (equivalent to a tent revival) on immigration, protested outside of Romney campaign events and have traveled across state lines to help defeat other Mormon politicians with similar harsh immigration stances.
"Yes, we are happy that we have a Mormon running for president," said Packard, a Saratoga Springs, Utah, resident and member of Somos (We are) Republicans. "But a lot of us aren't supporting him because of his stance against immigrants."
While stressing the Mormon faith's historic connection to converting immigrants, Latino Mormons point directly to immigration stories in the Book of Mormon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' recent statements against policies targeting immigrants. They also view Romney's stance against proposals giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship as hypocritical since Romney's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, who had five wives and 30 children, sought refuge in Mexico after passage of an 1882 law that barred polygamy.
"We view immigration as a God event," said Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University and a Sunday school teacher at his Mormon ward. "The book says no one comes to the Land unless they are brought by God."
Those stories in the Book of Mormon, Garcia said, give Hispanic Mormons a powerful religious argument to use, especially since most believe they are descendants of the Lamanites, an indigenous group in the Americas described in the Mormon sacred text. According to the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites lived in the present-day American Southwest, traveled south and face years of hardship, and are prophesized to eventually return to the Promised Land.
In addition, Garcia said the recent political moves by Hispanic Mormons are gaining attention because Hispanics are the fastest growing group among the LDS faith in the U.S.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not keep ethnic data on its 6 million or so members in the United States. But according to a 2011 national survey of Mormons by Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, Latinos make up 7 percent of Mormons in the U.S.
The church says the number of Spanish-speaking units has grown from 403 in 2001 to nearly 800 last year.
Garcia said it is estimated that nearly 70 percent of Latino Mormons are illegal immigrants. He said the church has responded by hiring members whose sole jobs are to transport some Latino missionaries from state to state because they can't fly due to their immigration status.
And last year, at least two Spanish-speaking LDS branch presidents were arrested and deported, highlighting the plight of immigrants within the faith.
Packard said those high profile deportations and the influx of new Hispanic members within the church helped with the recent passage of immigration bills in Utah that included an enforcement law modeled on Arizona's but balanced by a program that allows illegal immigrants to work and pay taxes in Utah if they register with the state.
Packard said she also was motivated to travel to Phoenix to campaign against the recently defeated former Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, who authored Arizona's much debated immigration law. She and others also have helped organized other Latino Republicans to speak out against Romney.
Pablo Felix, a Spanish-speaking bishop of the Liahona Second Ward in Mesa, Ariz., was reluctant to criticize Romney but said the immigration stories in the Book of Mormon are powerful and one of the many factors that draw Latinos to the church and act on behalf of the faith.
Felix said he cannot be sure about his congregation, but he suspects some 60 to 70 percent of the members could be here illegally.
But Hispanic Mormons may have limited influence in Arizona's upcoming GOP primary and the general election this year. Garcia said that's because most are illegal immigrants and can't vote. Those who can, he said, lean toward moderate Democratic candidates.
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