An open letter to ICE from a former law enforcement officer

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.

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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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J Cosgrove
3 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
2 months 4 weeks 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."

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks 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
2 months 4 weeks 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!

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

Robin,

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
2 months 4 weeks 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-…)

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

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks 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.

Steve Magnotta
2 months 4 weeks ago

And I want to thank you both, Jonathan and Robin.

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants to this country - Barack Obama

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. Hillary Clinton

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

It is wrong, and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws that we have seen...in recent years - Bill Clinton

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Jonathan
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
3 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?

Begin:

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

Will Niermeyer
3 months ago

Compassion has nothing to do with enforcing this law of zero tolerance. If they enter illegally they must be return to other side of border regardless of the reason . Follow the correct way of entering the USA legally.

Erin B
2 months 3 weeks ago

It's not illegal if they are seeking asylum, which MOST of them are. Also, it's not a law of zero-tolerance. It's Trump's policy. Please learn the difference between law and policy.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Erin
the phrase "Zero Tolerance" simply states that the law will be enforced as written. You may call that " a policy" but if that is the case there is also a Zero Tolerance Policy for drunk driving, larceny, etc, etc.
The alternative is called "Prosecutorial Discretion". The 5th Circuit has determined that the wholesale application of Prosecutorial Discretion by President Obama in exempting classes of people (DACA Parents) from application of Immigration laws through Executive Orders is a usurpation by the Executive Branch of power Constitutionally granted to the Legislative Branch. See "Texas vs The United States", 5th Cir November 2015
"Catch and Release" is simply a method of claiming you are enforcing the law when you know from experience that over 90% of those Caught and Released will not appear for their hearing. Even Jeh Johnson , the Obama head of Homeland Security stated "Catch and Release" simply encourages illegal entry.
To the extent you think that immigrant family detention is some new "Trump Policy", see "Close Family Detention Centers" by Kenneth Roth , USA Today April 11,2015 and you will quickly see you are incorrect.
Then in 2015-2016 The 9th Circuit played its part in this saga by holding that minors could not be detained with their parents in the Obama Family Detention Centers. see Flores vs Lynch, 9th Cir July 2016. This required "separation of children from their parents". This all went down long before Trump was even sworn in as President.
If you would just take the time to read "Flores vs Lynch" you will discover that 9th Circuit has somewhat baldly stated: The Executive can't fix this problem and this Court won't fix this problem......it is the job of the Legislative Branch to fix it!

William Bannon
3 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.”

Steve Magnotta
2 months 4 weeks ago

The prof is right. Why are you naysayers not with Christ?

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

Most of us are with Christ. For anyone to imply otherwise is self righteous false superiority. . We may understand things differently. For example, if you support the Democrats you are supporting a party whose policies have led to the breakdown of families all across the country. If you support Catholic Social Teaching, you are supporting policies that impoverish people. Disagree but don't presume you are right and those you disagree with are wrong.

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

The prof is right

You, other commenters, the editors and most authors including this one are arguing for open borders which is essentially the dissolution of the United States. Many of us would prefer this not to happen.

Erin B
2 months 3 weeks ago

I have yet to read a comment that openly advocates for open borders, so you need to stop accusing everyone of advocating for this. What people want is humane treatment for human beings. MOST of the people coming across the border are seeking asylum, which means they are not here illegally. People want the policy reversed. Even if they are coming across illegally, they are still human. They should not be treated as any less. If you saw the horrors they were trying to escape, you might have more sympathy. Have those who crossed illegally broken the law? Absolutely. It does not justify treating them as subhuman.

J Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

If they are not advocating open borders what are the advocating? Your description is equivalent to open borders because anyone can say the word "asylum." It is a way to try and circumvent the law. Also if they were truly seeking asylum, they would apply to Mexico, the first country they enter. No, all the authors and many of the commenters are advocating for open borders just as you are. Just because the words are not mentioned does not mean this is not what is sought or its equivalent.

J Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

A good example is the little girl in the Time magazine cover. Her mother abandoned a husband and three children and spent several thousand dollars to get to the US. I wonder how many people know the Time story is fake news. .

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Erin
If you enforce the law as written then one of the consequences that follows is that the minor children will be, by Court Order (9th Cir 2016/Flores vs Lynch) separated from a detained parent.
If you do not enforce the law and engage in a civil deportation proceeding then Parents with Children are "Caught and Released" to appear in court at a time which is on average over a year later. Over 90% of those "Caught and Released " never return for their hearing. Even Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security states that "Catch and Release" was/is totally in effective and encourages illegal immigration. That Erin amounts in every respect to "Open Borders" but Progressives refuse to use that term because they know that over 85% of Americans want the current law enforced and are opposed to any approach which constitutes an "Open Border".
It is up to Congress to change the law because the Executive Branch is not entitled to use so called "Prosecutorial Discretion" to exempt classes of people from law enforcement (see Texas vs United States, 5th Cir 2016 which overturned the Obama Deferred Action For Parents Order as unconstitutional).
So the equation as it stands is: Enforce the law as written or try "Catch and Release" which is a euphemism for "Open Border"

John Placette
2 months 4 weeks 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
2 months 4 weeks 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
2 months 4 weeks 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.

T. Saenz
2 months 2 weeks ago

The only unjust order to be found in this debate is fumed by folks like Mr. Winright, who seek to impose an unnatural order on American citizens that compels their obedience and the theft of their hard-earned money to fund policies based his personal sense of right and wrong . The immorality lies with the Catholic Church and its utter failure throughout Latin America to rectify the immorality of the corrupt Spanish economic system and political instability that has left 98% or more of the Latin American population mired in poverty and want. Now you want to dump the problem on these United States and their citizens while hypocritically and falsely claiming the moral high ground. No, thank you. You fix the problem you helped to create and nurture.

Let Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, et. al., get off their duffs and take care of their people.

Build the wall, Mr. President, and do not allow anyone to enter our country illegally. Law enforcement officers, you act righteously when you enforce the same immigration laws nearly every government on the planet has.

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