How much suffering and outrage will it take to change the terms of the immigration debate? The past week of tragic stories of family separations at our border—an inhumane and unnecessary method of deterrence freely chosen by the Trump administration—has begun to provide an answer.
How much pain, cruelty and chaos is the administration willing to impose in order to appeal to President Trump’s base? At least as much pain as children wailing when they are taken from their parents. At least as much cruelty as parents being told their children are going to be bathed when they in fact are being taken away. At least as much chaos as 2,300 children taken from their families with no credible plan or apparent concern for reuniting them.
How much moral and political opposition needs to be mounted until the administration finally admits—as it apparently has begun to with the signing of an executive order—that it has gone too far? At least as much as both the Catholic bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention denouncing family separations as immoral and unbiblical. At least as much as lawmakers from both parties calling clearly for a change in course. And for all this, not yet enough. Officials from the administration, with Mr. Trump personally leading the charge, have continued to describe their actions as mandated by law—a bald lie—in order to use the tragedy they have manufactured as leverage for their legislative demands.
How much moral and political opposition needs to be mounted until the administration finally admits—as it apparently has begun to with the signing of an executive order—that it has gone too far?
Moral and political pressure on the Trump administration must be maintained. Since launching his presidential campaign with racist slurs against Mexican immigrants, Mr. Trump has masterfully manipulated fear of immigrants to build his own power while eroding respect for their human dignity. Appealing to nativist sentiments seems to be his primary goal, even more than a border wall, which likely will not work.
The executive order merely replaces the cruelty of family separation with the cruelty of family detention. The cause of both policies is the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute every person crossing into the United States without authorization. The fact is there is no humane or just way to enforce unjust laws. If the American people will not abide using children to threaten immigrants—or if even that threat proves insufficient balanced against the violence and poverty immigrants face in their home countries—what assault on human dignity will be next? It will not be enough to reject and repent of these extraordinary assaults on the integrity of the family unless the United States also reckons with the fact that our immigration policy needs radical change, not just better border security.
While three-fifths of the country disapproves of Mr. Trump’s handling of immigration overall, and even greater numbers reject his family separation policy, a small majority of Republican voters support both. The United States is being held hostage to the immoral and unachievable political goals of immigration extremists who have rejected attempts at compromise. As a senator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions led the opposition that doomed the last serious congressional attempt at immigration reform, assisted by his communications director, Stephen Miller, who is now Mr. Trump’s domestic policy advisor and the chief architect of his immigration strategy. No progress on immigration can be achieved if the administration requires that the majority of the country simply capitulates to their demands.
Border security, while necessary, is not an absolute good, as Catholic social teaching recognizes. Its pursuit must be balanced with the need for just methods of enforcement and even more with the basic right of people to migrate in order to sustain their own lives and those of their families. It is both a moral and a practical impossibility to seal our southern border, when life in the United States is so much safer than in the violence- and poverty-plagued countries the immigrants are fleeing. Any realizable proposal to secure the border must start by expanding, rather than reducing, the flow of legal, regulated immigration from Latin America to something commensurate with the actual demand. It must recognize the need to offer asylum to those fleeing not only political persecution but domestic abuse and gang violence. It must be the kind of comprehensive approach pursued by the Reagan administration during the last major successful reform in 1986, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already peacefully living and working in the United States. Otherwise, the country will simply be priming the pump for the next crisis.
In order to achieve anything better, the energy of opposition to the Trump administration’s family separation policy must be maintained past this immediate moment of crisis.
The U.S. bishops have already criticized the new immigration bill proposed by the House Republican leadership along these lines. But in order to achieve anything better, the energy of opposition to the Trump administration’s family separation policy must be maintained past this immediate moment of crisis.
The searing images of children being removed from their parents and held in cages in immigration detention centers have roused the conscience of the country. The consistent and explicit witness given by many religious leaders seems to have finally made it clear to the public that the God of the Bible stands unambiguously on the side of the “stranger in the land.” Catholics and all Americans should continue to press their political leaders to make their stand there as well and evaluate what direct actions they might be able to take, considering their unique circumstances and abilities, to aid those suffering because of these policies. The bishops should continue their prophetic leadership on this issue, including trips to the border and detention facilities. Officials working in the Trump administration and those responsible for carrying out policies designed to stoke fear of immigrants should carefully examine their consciences and discern whether their resignations would achieve more good than their continued work within the system.
How much prayer and protest will it take to achieve a more just immigration policy for the United States? At least this much. For the sake of our brothers and sisters on our borders, we can do no less.