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Tobias WinrightJune 21, 2018
A U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)A U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)

As a former law enforcement officer, I have a simple message for the men and women carrying out the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border: You do not have to follow an unjust order.

Although President Trump has signed an executive order halting the separation of children from their parents by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, the past several days have deeply troubled me, and I think there are important lessons for you and other law enforcement officers. This has been a very testing time, not only for those who have been detained and for those who have raised voices in their defense but also, I am sure, for you.

Each day when I touch the handcuff key that remains on my car-key chain, I remember what that job can be like. Thirty-four years ago, when I was 19, I started working full-time at a maximum-security jail in Clearwater, Fla., in order to pay for my college education. Although I became an ethics professor 20 years ago, I also served as a reserve police officer for the Des Moines Police Department in Iowa for a few years, and I have taught police ethics there and later in St. Louis, Mo.

When I began wearing a badge, I swore “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As ICE officers and members of the Border Patrol, you have taken the same oath.

I humbly exhort you to listen to and follow your conscience during these stormy times.

You have committed yourselves to the upholding of the U.S. Constitution, not to a political party and not to one particular person occupying the office of president. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That Congress should not interfere with these fundamental rights does not grant the president or his surrogates free license to do so.

So it saddened me to see Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen attack the press in her speech on June 18 to the National Sheriffs’ Association meeting in New Orleans. Speaking of the media coverage of the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration laws, she said: “Don’t believe the press. [The minors] are very well taken care of.” The freedom of the press is one of the things law enforcement is supposed to “support and defend.” Instead, she defended the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy of prosecuting migrants, including those seeking asylum from life-threatening dangers in their homelands, and separating families.

You have sworn to “support and defend” not a nation and its borders but ultimately a moral and political ideal.

This policy has been denounced by church leaders from across the spectrum, from the U.S. Catholic bishops to the Rev. Franklin Graham.

Again, part of what law enforcement implicitly pledges to do is to “support and defend” the freedom of religion, including the right of religious citizens, clergy, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to challenge the morality of governmental policies and laws. After all, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” not all laws are just laws, and unjust laws must be opposed on the basis of a higher, moral law.

With religious freedom comes freedom of conscience and conscientious objection. In his final sermon before his assassination in 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero appealed to the consciences of soldiers and law enforcement officers in his country: “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military.... No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.”

It is truly heroic to follow one’s conscience when it means saying “no,” even if there are consequences.

Just as Catholic physicians and nurses should not be forced to perform an abortion, so, too, a law enforcement officer should follow his or her conscience with regard to performing job duties.

Over the past several days, many have urged you to remember that migrants are human beings. You are human, too. You have a conscience, and you are not expected to set it aside while on the job. Saying, “I am just doing my job” or “following orders” is not an excuse for committing immoral actions. According to “Gaudium et Spes,” the “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (No. 43).

I know this may seem easy for me to say. You could lose your job from taking this courageous step. But I humbly exhort you to listen to and follow your conscience during these stormy times, not only for the good of the country but for your own sake. “Gaudium et Spes” also highlights that certain immoral acts, such as “genocide, abortion, euthanasia” as well as “whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment [and] deportation,” not only “poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them” (No. 27). Doing something that goes against our moral compass or seeing others whom we respect doing so can produce guilty feelings and other non-physical scars, a condition now referred to as “moral injury.” If you are experiencing this, I hope you can find assistance from spiritual advisors or other counselors.

Last year, Pope Francis emphasized to law enforcement officers that “their vocation is service,” and he highlighted how their mission “is expressed in service to others” through their “constant availability, patience, a spirit of sacrifice and sense of duty.” I hope that you members of ICE, the U.S. Marshals, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies possess such a sense of vocation in service to others.

After all, you have sworn to “support and defend” not a nation and its borders but ultimately a moral and political ideal, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as a “self-evident” truth: All people, not only U.S. citizens, are equal and possess an inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are often called heroes, and rightly so at times, but it is truly heroic to follow one’s conscience when it means saying “no,” even if there are consequences.

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JR Cosgrove
5 years 10 months ago

Maybe Mr. Winright might want to answer what blame do the people coming to the border have and if they are mainly responsible for what is happening.

Jonathan Lunine
5 years 10 months ago

No blame whatsoever. For people seeking asylum whose lives are threatened in their home countries, this is their only hope. It was so for some of my ancestors, and it is so today. "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me."

JR Cosgrove
5 years 10 months ago

No they are to blame as well as those who encourage them. Why do they not seek asylum in the first country they enter. That is the normal thing to do. The asylum claim is a scam. They are making an unnecessary dangerous journey where they might be killed or the females raped. They are putting 12 year old girls on birth control pills because they expect they will be raped.

Robin Smith
5 years 10 months ago

I've been reading articles on this site for only a few months. I've noticed that you comment on the most controversial subjects with such venom & prejudice, I question your professed faith, your humanity actually. You've interjected politics into subjects where none was mentioned. You've added 45's cultural divides where none was necessary. I haven't read a cultural article where you haven't failed to make a mean, spiteful, derogatory comment.
TBH, I'm a Jewish Atheist and I like getting different POV's. But, dude, yours is so far off of almost every other person of faith here, I can only think you are a plant, a troll. Your comments are a perfect example of why Nones, anti 45er's, people from around the world look with disdain & contempt at the "religious right." SAD!

JR Cosgrove
5 years 10 months ago


Did I say something that is untrue? I suggest you politely ask questions and see if I or others have reasonable answers. This would be better than attacking. We both may learn something. I am a graduate of a Jesuit college and every thing I advocate is consistent with the Catholic faith as taught for nearly 2000 years.

Jonathan Lunine
5 years 10 months ago

Mr. or Ms. Cosgrove, I respectfully disagree with your final assertion. I quote from the USCCB page Catholic Church Teaching on Vulnerable Migrant Populations: "The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has the duty to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations." My assessment is that the spirit of your comments on this thread run counter to the catechetical instruction. (See http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/migrants-refugees-and-travelers/vulnerablemigrantpopulations.cfm)

And I want to thank Robin for weighing in here on the discussion.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 10 months ago

Two things. First, you are essentially advocating open borders. Such a policy will only lead to chaos and danger to both those coming and those already here as there will be no limit on who can come. Second, the US has an immigration policy and subsequent laws that has let in about 60 million since 1965. Anyone coming here not under this policy is knowingly breaking the law and putting in danger themselves but certainly any accompanying child. Thousands of them have died and many more have been assaulted. The parents are to blame. Those that encourage them are to blame

The Catholic Church has an incredibly poor record in providing for temporal sustenance for their flock. I would not quote them on something that will surely lead to widespread misery for millions.

I have yet to see the Catholic Church take any steps that has lead to a prosperous life for a large group of people. The Catholic Church has by far the best way for an individual to lead their lives. But they have not provided any good ways for governments to optimize the life of their people on earth in terms of economics or politics.

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 years 10 months ago

There is nothing inconsistent in having laws which govern immigration and adhering to the portions of the Catechism you quote. .
The current law does not prohibit immigration but it does criminalize a failure to follow the immigration laws' terms for lawful immigration and/or asylum. Faced with this conundrum the Jesuit Editors in companion articles to the above simply declare those terms "unjust" and conclude that an unjust law need not be obeyed. They argue that if the law is enforced then there are deleterious consequences to the family unit and therefore it must be an unjust law. Indeedthe author of this Article boldly urges federal employees not to enforce this alleged unjust law.
That same argument could be made to nullify each and every criminal law which incarcerates a person who is a family member. That logic would dictate that almost all laws are similarly unjust.
As Catholics we are obligated to assist in alleviating the deleterious consequences of a law but that is far different proposition than being compelled by our Faith to state the law is unjust.

As a supporting emotional argument The Editors emphasize that the "would be immigrants" are only seeking to earn a living or better themselves. But the understandable fact that an illegal immigrant seeks to better his and his family's lot in life is no different than the thief who thinks the stolen goods will better his position and care fir his family. Cast aside by the Editors as immaterial is the damage and injustice done to those immigrants in line for admittance who have followed the law.

John Wakefield
5 years 10 months ago

These are indeed trying times. We have fallen to the side of many roads via a self-excusing moral relativism. "Oh, but .." The border situation is terrible. Inside our country, is terrible. In the world, is terrible. There are not easy answers. Someone wrote, the other day, that 40 - or did they write 60 - ? - percent of Americans have lost any compassion .. would that add-on: that they might have had? We need consider: do those words at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty really go for now?

Remember them, don´t you?


"Give me your tired, your poor .." .. goes on, "your huddled masses" .. and, doesn´t it than add? .. "yearning to be free" .. ?

William Bannon
5 years 10 months ago

Secretary Nielsen exercised her right to dissuade. She did not encourage let alone seek to shut newspapers by force. That red herring by the author stopped me from reading any further. The nytimes has been besides themselves over the children while their record on intellectually helping kill preborns exists for years. Everytime a criminal couple in any country enter prison...their children endure awful change as they miss them and then live with others. Mexico is the logical end point for fleeing Central Americans. It is not the Sudan but a country with a decent economy that includes auto manufacture etc. Cartel regions can be avoided. USA ghettoes have the same murder rates as Central America....c.31 per 100,000 and refugees are living near or in such ghettoes in the usa. Mexico’s murder rate is 17 per 100,000 but that is slanted upward by the cartel regions and towns which means there are areas of Mexico that are much safer than usa poor areas and safer than Central America. Why are Bishops seeking a goal that places refugees in the danger of usa poor areas. In December of last year, an Ecuadorian immigrant, Mr. Yupa, was killed by a ghetto thug as he returned from Catholic services to his home in a ghetto area...the 800 Grove St. block of Irvington,N.J....on the border of Newark. Google search by using... “ Yupa murder Irvington, N.J. man shot before his wife and child.”

John Placette
5 years 10 months ago

Here is an open statement from a PRESENT law enforcement officer with 40+ years of experience in active service and a Roman Catholic Deacon: The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
There are competing priorities.

As a law enforcement officer, you are obliged to carry out your duty in enforcing the laws that are on the books. You are doing your job. The separation of parents and children occur every day due to self initiated criminal behavior. At some point Congress will change the law. Until then, show respect and dignity to all the people you encounter. Do your job well.
To advocate for civil disobedience by law enforcement personnel is short sighted and irresponsible.

Rich Vázquez
5 years 10 months ago

We need to stop behaving as if these men are "just doing their jobs." They asked for this job and for the job to be done this way.

Their union endorses a president for the first time with Trump - a man who had civil rights violations going back to the 70s, a man who led the movement for people to believe the nations first Black president was a Muslim born in Africa, a man who called for and still calls for the death of 5 innocent young Black men in NY were were exonerated by a confession and DNA.

Their spokesperson has regularly spoken out when asked about picking up non-criminal violators and parents as "finally being able to do their job."

They aren't even complicit - they are the drivers of this cesspool.

Tim Donovan
5 years 10 months ago

I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Winright that religious leaders and people of all faiths have the constitutional right to speak out about matters that have a moral dimension. Certainly, no doctor or nurse should be compelled to deliberately kill an innocent unborn human being, regardless of their faith. The science of biology confirms that a new human being comes into existence at fertilization. Although I was a Special Education teacher (now retired) instructing children with brain damage, not a police officer, I can sympathize with the difficulty their job entails. Officers have the often dangerous duty to protect other people, and must do so in a moral manner. As Prof. Winright points out, police officers like all rational people "have a conscience, and (they) are not expected to set it aside while on the job." I commend Prof. Winright for recognizing the difficulty that ICE officers and Border Patrol members face since they could lose their jobs by disobeying an unjust law . I'm 56, but as a young man working with disabled adults while attending college, I took part in a "rescue ," a peaceful sit-in outside a facility that performed abortions. I believed and still do that Roe v. Wade is an unjust law. However , I must admit with some shame that unlike many other people who served prison time for their participation in the pro-life sit-in, I merely paid a modest fine. I feared the consequences of having to explain a prison sentence to potential employers when filling out job applications.

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