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.