In the wake of President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, prominent voices have been raised in moral indignation, painting him as a villain. But is that characterization fair?

Much of the Catholic world is in an uproar over President Trump’s decision to phase out the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) order enacted by former President Obama in June of 2012. The DACA order set a policy to ignore the immigration status of certain people residing in the United States in contravention of validly-enacted immigration law. The number of people affected by DACA may have been large, but it was, nonetheless, directed to a narrowly-defined subset of people. Without undertaking a review of the details, the order was concerned with protecting people from deportation who arrived in the United States before they were sixteen years old, have remained continuously in the United States since that time, and, in their time here, have graduated from high school and have not otherwise broken any laws.

The DACA order did not provide these persons with citizenship status, nor did it grant them permanent residency as such, which would extend to them a civil right to live and work in the United States while living under our system of laws. It simply declared that existing immigration law would be ignored, insofar as, under that law, these persons would be subject to deportation.

In the wake of President Trump’s decision to rescind the order, prominent Catholic voices have been raised in moral indignation, painting President Trump as a nefarious actor. But, before going further, we should remember that Catholic moral tradition consistently recommends accepting people’s declared motives as their true motives except under circumstances that make it clear to any reasonable observer that the person is lying to us (CCC § 2478; Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 22). That principle noted, President Trump has said that his decision to rescind DACA comes in the wake of its history, which includes successful court challenges to its validity, Congress’ failure to pass the DREAM Act into law, and the advice of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who believes the DACA order to be unconstitutional. Rather than assigning nefarious motives to President Trump, we are bound, then, to take him at his word and accept that he is rescinding DACA for these reasons.

Yet, as I have said, Catholic responses to President Trump’s decision on DACA have been scathing, characterizing him as a villain. Is that characterization fair given his declared motives, which appear entirely reasonable and cogent? And, do the Catholic responses to President Trump’s decision on DACA represent the best the Catholic tradition has to offer on questions of political philosophy and the philosophy of law?

I do not disagree that Catholic observers should be concerned with the human toll to be exacted by current US immigration law on the unfortunate people to whom the DACA question applies. But consider these excerpts from the USCCB’s official statement and what they seem to suggest about the motives we should assign to the president in this action:

  • “The cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible.”
  • “This decision is unacceptable and does not reflect who we are as Americans.”
  • “Today, our nation has done the opposite of how Scripture calls us to respond.”
  • “Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment… that shows the absence of mercy and goodwill.”

Here, we see the representation of President Trump’s motives for rescinding DACA as clearly nefarious. This action is “reprehensible” and “unacceptable” (morally so, seems to be the implication), because it is contrary to Scripture, and “shows the absence of mercy and goodwill.” The judgment is clear: President Trump is a villain; he is merciless and malevolent.

But that judgment is inconsistent with President Trump’s stated motives, which, for their own part, do not call biblical standards of mercy and goodwill into question. His stated motives have to do with the rule of law, which the Catholic political tradition clearly establishes as integral to the common good, and to which Catholic moral tradition, therefore, holds political authorities accountable. If we take President Trump at his word, and accept his declared motives as his true motives, as we are morally bound to do, it would seem we should express our respect for him rather than reprove him. He made a difficult and painful decision pursuant to his sworn duty to uphold validly enacted law. Indeed, the fact that he did not rescind DACA with immediate effect but allowed a six-month grace period during which Congress can act, further supports the reasonableness of accepting his stated motives at face-value.

So, given President Trump’s stated motives for rescinding DACA, the question before us is not whether President Trump is merciful or of good will, but whether he is correct or incorrect in his understanding of what the law prescribes and forbids, and thus, what falls within his discretion as president and what does not. As a question of constitutional law specific to the context of US jurisprudence, and as a question of the philosophy of law in general, we can have an argument about whether President Trump is correct in his practical judgment here. But there should be no argument about his motives because he told us what they are. They are rational and coherent reasons for him to take the action that he did, not for nefarious purposes, but for the noble purpose of discharging his sworn duty to defend and preserve the system of laws that makes civil society possible in the United States.

If President Trump is speaking truthfully, furthermore, about his understanding of his duty, then asking him to do otherwise than he has done is asking him to violate his conscience. But under Catholic moral teaching, we may never ask this of him, even if we think he is factually incorrect in his conclusions. We are duty bound, if we believe he is wrong, to attempt to persuade him that other courses of action are available to him, but if we exhort him to do what he believes he is morally prohibited from doing or to refrain from what he believes he is morally bound to do, we are leading him into the sin of disobeying his conscience, which is always gravely evil.

So, is President Trump correct or incorrect in his interpretation of his duties as president with respect to validly enacted immigration law? That is debatable. But his position is strong, at least from the perspective of the tradition of Catholic political philosophy and the philosophy of law. According to Catholic tradition, and consistent with the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a law is valid and binding if it meets these four criteria:

  • It is an ordinance of reason.
  • It is enacted by the competent authority.
  • It is enacted in promotion of the common good.
  • It is promulgated.

Under the United States Constitution, it is the responsibility of Congress “To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization… throughout the United States” (I.8.4), and it is the responsibility of the President to faithfully execute validly enacted federal legislation. The Trump Administration’s stance is that DACA represents a violation of the duties of the presidency toward validly-enacted federal law on the subject of immigration. Appealing to prosecutorial discretion here is a red herring because the question in DACA is not about the prioritization of immigration enforcement policy, but about the decision never to enforce immigration law in a certain circumstance, even if resources are not otherwise strained, in spite of what the law specifically prescribes.

Interestingly, President Obama consistently maintained that such a policy initiative fell outside his constitutional mandate as president before finally deciding that he was going to enact it anyway. So, President Trump is agreeing, not only with Attorney General Sessions and half of the Supreme Court (which heard the case and came to a four-four split decision on it), but also with Barack Obama, who, according to his own stated position, believed DACA to undermine the system of laws in the United States, but decided to enact it anyway, in spite of his duty to protect and defend that system.

President Trump’s (and President Obama’s) position is very likely correct, in which case DACA is a usurpation of authority and thus, an act of tyranny. Tyrannical rule, however, is a grave evil, and a grave evil may never be chosen even for the sake of a good end, according to Catholic moral teaching. So, perhaps we can just accept that President Trump may be acting in good faith, and recognize that it is possible to defend what DACA sought to achieve while still opposing DACA.

The official statement of the USCCB ends, therefore, where it ought to have begun: with an exhortation to Congress to act on the issue which DACA was meant to address. Since Congress is and always has been the only competent authority in this matter, there was never any cause to impugn the president’s character. If the DACA provisions are important political goods, it is up to Congress to pass a law to secure them. Until that time, the president has no valid claim to authority over the matter, because he is not at liberty to ignore the rule of law.

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The featured image is an image of a DACA rally in San Francisco by Pax Ahimsa Gethen. It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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