The Attorney General’s announcement on Tuesday that President Trump had decided to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) sent news and social media into a predictable frenzy. President Trump has generally been at odds with large segments of the immigrant community, particularly the undocumented immigrants who have entered the country illegally, so many have interpreted this decision as an attack on immigrants, especially children who were innocent in their arrival here but have since become productive contributors to society.
I understand this response, but I don’t think it’s the right one at this point, and it’s particularly troubling that churches have accepted this interpretation. Yes, we should “mourn with those who mourn,” but there is also “a time to mourn” and I don’t think now is such a time.
We should be willing to listen to what was said…
Many have followed in former-President Obama’s footsteps by calling the end of DACA an assault on “our best and brightest young people.” This includes many church and denominational organizations who have posted statements of grief and mourning for the “uncertainty and injustice that so many young immigrants are experiencing.” Both of these responses treat the situation as if DACA was repealed and people were being deported starting today, and both of responses assert that the policy change is an assault on the people benefitting from the policy. But, is that what was said?
If you read Attorney General Sessions’ statement, there are certainly a few comments on the negative effects of illegal immigration. However, any reasonable evaluation of the statement would admit that the thrust of the argument is not focused on the immigrants themselves. Instead, the issue revolves around the lack of legal authority that then-President Obama had to take such action.
Sessions’ quoting of Jonathan Turley, professor of law at George Washington University, captures the argument best:
“In ordering this blanket exception, President Obama was nullifying part of a law that he simply disagreed with… If a president can claim sweeping discretion to suspend key federal laws, the entire legislative process becomes little more than a pretense… The circumvention of the legislative process not only undermines the authority of this branch but destabilizes the tripartite system as a whole.”
Former-President Obama more or less admitted to this when he voiced his criticism of President Trump’s decision. He cited a long bipartisan interest in helping the people aided by DACA, having decided to implement the program because he was waiting on Congress to act, but “That bill never came.”
If we respond to this executive action with mourning, it is because we see it as an assault on Dreamers.1 However, the statement that was made is more clearly an attack on Obama. It’s completely understandable that former-President Obama would say this targets Dreamers—after all, he thinks his actions were totally justified. But, if we’re to go the same way, we must do one of two things: either affirm that President Obama’s exercise of action was legally unquestionable, or consider the entire statement by Attorney General Sessions to have been a smokescreen for xenophobia.2 Neither alternative is a good idea.
In general, Christians affirm that all authority is derived from, and therefore answerable to, God. A similar view of the delegated and therefore limited nature of authority is part of the genius of the structure of the American Constitution, which is reflected in the significant common ground we all share in worrying about tyranny.3 However, if we’re fair, we can admit that our sensibilities about one branch of government overreaching its authority are often tied to our political leanings and whether the action in question was done by “us” or “them.” It’s kind of inevitable, but it’s not desirable. If we dislike tyranny, then we should decry it in all its forms, whether an abuse of power serves our purposes or not. Regardless of the nuances of the Constitutional argument, President Obama agrees that he circumvented Congress, making what was neither a legally nor morally unassailable decision. It is unreasonable to claim that opposing his decision could only be a moral cover for hating the people affected by the policy.
If we reject the first reason for ignoring Sessions’ statement, it is still understandable why people would reach for the second. There is no doubt that Trump has appealed to fear and xenophobia as tools to build his power base. There’s also no doubt that this decision, absent any future action, would delight racists and cause the marginalized to suffer. However, claiming xenophobia would mean shutting our ears to what was actually said.
The statement calls on Congress to act. President Trump led up to the statement by calling on Congress to act, and he followed that statement up by tweeting, “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!” Even if President Trump is a racist (and I’m not contradicting that claim at all), he has gone to great lengths to frame this policy decision as based in limited government, and he has taken steps to commit himself to signing legislation that accomplishes virtually the same outcome as DACA.
…and take it seriously at face value…
That’s where this issue pivots for me. If we jump to mourning, we must immediately assume that the official statement is farce, and that mass deportation—although more than six months out—is a virtually accomplished fact. If we jump to mourning, we move past the words that were said, willfully ignoring them in favor of what we think Trump really meant.
There is danger, especially at the institutional level, in making this leap. Making this leap means it doesn’t matter what was said: we know what it really meant, and we can respond as if the supposed intent behind the DACA action had already caused the deportation to come to pass. It completely removes any middle ground for people who think this was the right idea done in the wrong way (the group to which Trump is appealing) and makes the statement into an “us” versus “them” battle in which you’re either a white nationalist or a compassionate human being. While there’s rhetorical power in this framing, it’s not an ethical use of communication, and it serves to further the lamentable tribalization of politics in the modern world.
Worse still, when it is the church that adopts this framework, is that our very real and compelling obligation to the widow and orphan (and our laudably passionate concern for them) can lead us to unwittingly collapse the divine perspective into the political one. If, on a formal level, we engage in advocacy that disregards the value of words, what impact will we reap in our daily advocacy of the power of the Word?
…so that we can hold the President accountable to his own words
So, what alternative do we have? Taken a different way, how confident are we about where the majority of Americans stand? If repealing DACA can only be an assault on Dreamers, then there’s no room for people who want the same outcome, but who see great injustice in the misuse of executive power. It excludes those who are advocates of limited, delegated authority and office consciousness, and it furthers the notion that power is inherent and personal. It labels as “disingenuous” or “naïve” the Republicans who have advocated and continue to advocate for a legislative solution.
Why alienate a consensus? Instead, whatever Trump’s private motivations are, let us take the Administration at its word, and work to hold them to it. Rather than mourning an attack that has not yet occurred, join hands across the aisle to make sure that it doesn’t happen. In the end, there’s a reason why former-President Obama preferred a legislative pathway in the first place: a DACA where the “A” stands for “Act” is better in virtually every possible way.
This is a moment in which vital immigration reform is actually realistically possible, but the magnitude of that task requires bipartisanship like we haven’t seen in some time. Now isn’t a moment to mourn, it’s a moment to march, because if we fracture ourselves and fall short this time, mourning is all we’ll have left.
a shorthand for those affected by DACA ↩
There’s a third option, namely that this statement was meant to be an attack on Obama, with the Dreamers as acceptable collateral damage, but that option is also answered by my analysis, so I won’t address it separately. ↩
This is not an argument that we’re a Christian nation, simply that these principles related to limited governance have roots in a view of government and humanity born of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. ↩
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Thank you Professor Roth for this great document. I hope that all church people read this. It was so wrong for people to conclude that the Dreamers would be deported in six months. The onus is still on the congress which was also the case with the Obama illegal order. You also hinted at the blurred lines that are crossed with the “sphere sovereignty” of the church and the political sphere. Church people (& theologians) need to more conscious of this before they opine. Thank you again for your common sense evaluation of this issue. The Dreamers should never be deported in my opinion and Congress should act with a common sense immigration policy real soon.
I appreciate the time and effort it must have taken for you, Donald, to craft this piece, and because I am not in a position to expend the same amount of time crafting a response that everyone can read, I am hesitant to state a criticism. Nonetheless I will state one: I find that at a number of points your article violates its own standards of “ethical uses of communication.” I would be happy to discuss with you in person those points I detect, and you may correct me if I’m wrong. I will mention two here however: it seems to me that you paint those with whom you disagree into a corner the same way you accuse them of doing to others – and so you end up with another simplistic dichotomy – this one of your own construction. The way you place the concern for the rule of law and limited government somehow entirely your “side” and exclude the other side from that concern (no doubt due to their inability to understand language and to use it ethically) is a case in point. If this issue were so simple then I wonder why I don’t see crowds carrying placards attacking “Lousy, No-Good Rule of Law Types.” It’s too simple to divide people into those who stand for limited government and those who seek to undermine it. That seems to me to be a typical partisan framing of the issue that is quite standard and quite old, and I can’t help but think that this is not what you’re aiming for. And so what could otherwise be some promising points on your part simply become points on an “us vs. them” partisan tally sheet.
A second quick example. When you quote one of President Trump’s tweets, you do so within the context of the claim that this issue is carefully framed in terms of limited government (i.e., that he has gone to great lengths to frame it this way). But please, Donald (Roth), look at this tweet again, and tell me whether such a statement is consistent with the position of someone who would be committed carefully to limited government. I cannot see Speaker Ryan ever “tweeting” this. I see not just one, but two departures from firm, insightful commitment to limited government. Do you see them?
Thanks for the reply, Mark, and thank you for taking the time to engage.
I may have been insufficiently clear here, but I do not see the concern for the rule of law to be the sole possession of one party/side or the other. Instead, I think we spend most of our breath in political debate today talking about what should be done and less about how to do it. My thinking is more rooted in various philosophies of the nature of the executive branch (and power in general), where you have the limited view expressed most often by Supreme Court justices set against the notion of an imperial presidency best embodied in Wilson, Roosevelt, and Trueman. I think most people on both sides, perhaps even especially many Trump supporters, do not concern themselves with how a policy objective is accomplished so long as it is accomplished.
There are so many important issues today that we all have our own hierarchy of prioritization. When I’m talking about the “rule of law” folks here, I mean those who place structural concerns near the top of their interests in public policy. Perhaps all of those people are judges or lawyers, but I suspect not. When it comes to priorities in arguing about immigration policy, I think this is really a dimension that comes in from outside of the binary that usually drives the pro/anti-DACA debate. However, when the debate is framed as choosing to lament the end of DACA or not, particularly the framing I’m addressing here, which treats this as if this was a current deportation order with no message to Congress, then I don’t see how someone with the priorities I mention feels anything other than alienation, in many cases from both sides. I have a strong dislike for nativism, even if I see the immigration question in a different light than you, yet I’m even more bothered by the demise of Constitutional norms (something Trump is no true defender of, more on that in a minute), so I’m glad to see DACA go, but I want to see something like it enacted by statute. I come in to the debate with a different set of priorities, and I don’t like feeling pushed out of the side I sympathize with by the way they choose to frame the issue.
Essentially, I see “is helping Dreamers a good idea” and “is DACA good policy” as two different questions, and the majority of public discourse on this topic is collapsing the two into one thing in a way that I don’t see as rhetorically or practically helpful, especially given the need for bipartisan effort here.
As to quoting the Tweet, I am under no illusions that Trump is a genuine fan of limited government. I tried to be careful in the way I stated things in the piece, but perhaps that needs more emphatic clarification. In talking about how Trump has “framed” or “appealed to” concepts of limited government, I am imputing no such genuine motivation to him. I believe he saw this as politically expedient for a number of reasons, and he believed the most persuasive way to structure his argument was through such an appeal. Frankly, I’m not even sure this is driven by particular hatred for immigrants (notice that his Tweet suggests he’d revisit the issue). To my assessment, Trump is an egotist, and this is an ahem measuring contest with Barack Obama. He wants to win the pissing match, and he’ll take what looks like the most effective means to win.
The framing of the headings in the piece here point to my takeaway. Let’s take Trump at his word and hold him to it. This is not assuming that his heart was behind what he said, but he put some skin in the game in that direction, so let’s run with it.
Ultimately, Trump knows he has the nativists on his side, so he structured his explanation to appeal to the “rule of law” folks. I’ve seen few examples (I have seen some) among those responding with lament and outrage that leave rhetorical room for people like me. Like it or not, the real fight now is to push for immigration reform, and I think this posture unnecessarily divides the camp of those who would otherwise work together, which seems good for nativists and few others. The whole goal of this piece is urging a reframing of the issue to focus on a future where we might have more common cause.
Is that helpful clarification/response?
My two cents.
I think that regardless of the Constitutional or other reasons underlying this policy decision, it is still valid and correct to sympathize with, pray for, and perhaps even grieve with Dreamers. The announcement from AG Sessions understandably causes them considerable worry and fear, especially when situated as it is among the other acts and statements of this administration. To insist on framing this as only a Constitutional or balance-of-power question is to implicitly accept Dreamers as “collateral damage” in such a debate. I doubt that we would be so quick to frame it this way if it were one of our own groups being attacked.
We would be remiss not to recognize that the circumstances of this policy decision result in very real emotional effects – already today – on some members of our American community, namely, the Dreamers who call this place home. Coming alongside them as Christians makes a statement that they are valued and loved, not only by us, but also by the Savior for whom we have the privilege of being ambassadors in this world.
I deeply appreciate Professor Ross’s thoughtful response to President Trump’s change of policy, announced by Attorney General Sessions earlier this week; but I don’t know why Professor Ross is so interested in repudiating the CRC’s Office of Social Justice statement. It seems clear the Office of Social Justice’s lament concerns “the uncertainty and injustice that so many young immigrants are experiencing.” Their “mourning” means they want to stand beside the Dreamers, the young people who are, once more, afraid of being forced to leave the country they think of their own.
That Dreamers are affected by what Attorney General said (“I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama Administration is being rescinded”) is really not arguable, is it? That statement, for thousands, must be very scary. It’s somehow wrong for those of us who are not “Dreamers” to feel for those who are?
Professor Ross’s final line draws a line in the sand I’d rather weren’t there: “Now isn’t a moment to mourn, it’s a moment to march. . .”
It may be, as he argues, a time to march; but certainly, he doesn’t mean that it’s somehow wrong to sympathize with those among us—perhaps even in Dordt’s student body–who are afraid?
Thank you for taking the time to respond.
I’m not looking to specifically single out the CRC’s comment, since they were hardly alone, it was just the one that crossed my Facebook feed when I made an initial comment that I was asked to expand upon for this article. I will say though that I think your reading is too charitable. The official statement that I linked to very explicitly frames this in the context of DACA, not for the Dreamers’ state in general, but specifically in response to the President’s actions. They specifically “deeply lament the uncertainty and INJUSTICE (emph. mine) that so many young immigrants are experiencing in the wake of the decision to end” DACA. This is not a statement solely asserting solidarity with the Dreamers, probably one of the most sympathetic groups among many deserving of our concern among the undocumented population. Instead, this is a statement that uses Scriptural themes to explicitly condemn this specific policy decision as unjust. I unequivocally repudiate that notion both for reasons of my own political philosophy (explained in the piece) and the concern that this attempts to leverage the strongest sense of the moral authority of Scripture to bind the consciences of believers to a specific policy position in this issue.
As to your second comment, my specific address here would be to the posture of our broader collective action. I am not seeking to delegitimize the emotional response of those specifically affected; however, sympathy is not the same thing as mourning. Let me turn it a different way: as you mention, this could be a scary announcement for many of the affected immigrants. Why would we mourn, should we not too be afraid? Can’t we fear with those who fear? What about those who were anxious under the old policy? After all, it required biannual renewals and still carried a significant administrative burden for anyone who participated. There’s no doubt that created anxiety just like this announcement did. Shouldn’t we lament DACA itself for creating anxiety and not being the permanent solution that this group seeks? Individuals respond in all sorts of ways to a given situation, if we’re talking about a collective Christian response, we should be evaluating the situation and determining what an appropriate response is. Given that no one has actually lost anything at this point, and that the public assurances thus far are that nothing should be lost, mourning (grieving something lost) may not be the appropriate collective response, especially while there’s still time to act, and that’s the point of my article.
No doubt Professor Roth didn’t intend to be uncharitable, but his is an emotionally deaf response to others’ outpouring of anguish, most of all families who have good reason to fear being torn apart.
Make no mistake, this Trump-Sessions statement is coming from racists whose motives and intentions are malign. Prof. Roth’s openness to this “minor detail” as a real possibility is an astonishing thing to include as a note in passing. The mere appearance of such profound enmity in a President and Attorney General is a devastating blow to the foundations of the country in law and the consent of the people, especially minorities. (I recall much handwringing in the past when creative misreading of minor statements from President Obama elicited great concern from Prof. Roth about state repression of religious groups.)
Today we have had more than mere appearances of racial hatred on full display, and from the lips of these men! It is astonishing then that we are advised by Prof. Roth to take them at their word and read the President’s DACA statement in the best possible light, as if someone with the best intentions and motives had authored it. What can it mean for a president to appeal to the “rule of law” right after pardoning an incarcerated vigilante sheriff notorious for his abuse of power? In 2007 Arpaio said that it was an “honor” for his department to be compared to the Ku Klux Klan!
If Roth’s real aim is to unite his readers to “march” in support of a new policy that reasserts DACA’s protections, why is that the last, least developed idea following a sea of amelioratory rhetoric? Let’s be clear about the stakes here: organized, militant, racist groups that have worked for the president since the beginning of his campaign want nothing to replace DACA, or else something explicitly punitive that will allow ICE and Arpaio-like characters to more aggressively apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants. For that reason it is surely time to begin a belated march to unite the already fractured political and religious right to demand a just and humane treatment of our neighbors and relatives whose state papers are not in order.
Thank you for your comments, Gerry.
I’m sorry that you take my response as purely partisan, emotionally deaf, and the like, but I am glad that you agree that now is a time to take action. There absolutely are those out there who seek to affirmatively harm immigrants, and now is a time for bipartisan efforts to see that such interests come to naught.
Based on your tone, I don’t believe I can convince you of my motivations, but I will offer one correction. I do not argue that we “read the President’s DACA statement in the best possible light,” I argue that we read what was said. I’m not in any way arguing that we trust Trump’s motivations or give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m saying that Trump, despite having significant latitude with regard to immigration policy, particularly executive orders related to immigration policy, could have framed this as just a reversal of Obama. He could have framed this as “I hate immigrants,” and there would be very little legal recourse to be had. Instead, Trump framed this as an appeal to taking a Constitutionally-preferable (even by Obama’s admission) route of legislation over executive order.
I’m not saying we believe that this is what motivated Trump; I’m saying this is the argument he used, and that commits him to something, and we should work to hold him to it. Wittingly or not, Trump created leverage for bipartisan movement on even a small piece of immigration reform. In saying he would take something away (important note that nothing has been taken away yet, and still might not) Trump actually gave us something. My argument is that we use that.
That is a much better way of putting it. I agree. However, I am not optimistic. This is a very short window to unite people on an issue that has been very divisive, especially among conservative Christians. There is a prevalent, popular view among many people that lawbreakers should be given no break at all, without regard for discretion, basic human rights, and the actual circumstances of individuals. How do you suggest Americans resolve this division lest it be exploited by those who are seeking to use the law to do harm to immigrants?
As you may know the supreme courts of Kansas (and previously Iowa) recently decided the states do not have jurisdiction over identity theft/fraud cases involving undocumented immigrants, much to the dismay of people like Kris Kobach. From a states’ rights, limited government perspective, conservatives argue this is a loss. Others perceive that leaving enforcement in the hands of local authorities could be like “states rights” in the Reconstruction-era South: a gift to those who would imprison, forcibly deport, and split up families on as large a scale as possible without much regard for their dignity and basic life necessities.
How do we build solidarity in the short and long term among all people of good will who understand folly and barbarism of trying to mass-deport millions of people?
I’m glad that we’re finding common cause in this Gerry, and I suspect that dialog like this is exactly what needs to be had in more corners to help pull people together around this issue. I’ll cop to being an optimist when it comes to what we work for in the future, but I try to be a realist about what we have in the present. You are absolutely right that this is an absolute mountain of an issue that we need to climb in a short time.
To those who wish to give lawbreakers no breaks, I think it’s clear that they must imagine themselves in the blameless camp. Perhaps they’ve never broken a speed limit or done anything that they were glad cops weren’t around to see, but even if that’s the case, the law that we follow treats offenders differently when they are minors. DACA is a program entirely for those brought here as children. Even if we want to call them lawbreakers for their role in that act, the law regularly treats juveniles differently and with a sense of grace that doesn’t always exist for adults. I think there are more complex policy considerations around how we handle undocumented adults, but we should be able to find common ground with kids, and it seems like this is true for the majority out there. Thankfully, in a democracy, a majority is all we need.
You make a good point with the trial of fraud cases. I think the way we frame our laws can be massively impacted by who we envision the law affecting. If we’re talking about undocumented immigrants committing fraud, are we thinking of people who steal identities in order to facilitate an otherwise law-abiding lifestyle, or those who do so in order to serve as a cover for more substantial criminal enterprise? I would assume people are more sympathetic to the first, while even people who aren’t as concerned with federalism might be dismayed at roadblocks to the legal system dealing with the second. The thing is, this isn’t just imaginary. We have studies that tell us which group makes up a more substantial part of the undocumented population, and it’s the first group. To me, that should create a policy drive to think about how to deal justly with the first group while developing tools to effectively deal with the second. I think one of the ways to build solidarity among people of good will is to try to address problems in a way that validates both concerns, refusing to turn all immigrants into “bad hombres” without denying that there are some out there and it is legitimate to think about how to reach them.
One approach that I have found helpful in the past is addressing that imaginative dimension directly. When you hear someone making generalizations, good or bad, about “immigrants,” what assumptions are being made about the makeup of that class? Why? If it’s personal experience, does that bear out in broader study? If it’s broad generalizations, does it ring true in personal experience? In some ways, we all have to drill down into our definitions so that we can better understand when we’re speaking the same language or not. I don’t have the space or time to flesh that out completely, but maybe that’s a start…
Well, well, well. Where are we now, two years down the line? Still optimistic? How far have you climbed this mountain in the past two years? There is no serious talk of immigration reform; there is general denial and refusal to admit of a manufactured humanitarian crisis.
We now see America’s border patrol putting people in fetid cages and concentration camps, children and adults of all ages suffering and dying in detainment, including at least one US citizen who was simply being abused, his citizenship documentation simply ignored. Families are being split up, and Christian adoption agencies have been involved distributing some of the kids without records of who or where their parents are.
I have often thought of this article and you Prof. Roth. How does it sit with you now?
My apologies for not seeing this sooner. I am less optimistic two years later, but I am not without hope by any means. As to the specific issue of DACA, it is disappointing to me that no legislative fix was able to make its way through Congress. At the same time, I have not heard of the mass deportation of Dreamers that everyone was lamenting at that time. It mostly seems like Trump reversed Obama’s policy, then resumed the status quo up to that point, which is largely to ignore most undocumented immigrants who have made it past the border unless/until they commit a serious crime.
That said, Trump has recently been threatening to start a massive deportation of everyone here illegally unless Congress can initiate comprehensive immigration reform. (Of course, as usual, his talk of “millions” is reflected only in ICE’s work to actually deport thousands who have already gone through the judicial process and received a final deportation notice.) Similarly, the crisis along the border has been willfully made more dire by Trump’s policies; although it is simply incorrect to call them “concentration camps” (at least as that term has come to mean).
Our immigration system is in crisis. It has been for the better part of at least the last two decades. Action to stem the influx of migrants through California and Texas led to the far more deadly efforts to cross the Arizona and New Mexico deserts. Our administrative system remains almost completely broken, but the complication of both sides of the issue has really prevented successful reform. So yes, we need immigration reform as much, if not more, than ever, and it will come.
As best I can tell, the tragedies along the border are more tied to capacity than anything else. There simply isn’t space to process the number of cases being dealt with, although it is still true that most people (I think it’s around 70%) are detained for less than a month. I don’t think we help things to demonize CBP or ICE. They are overwhelmed, not some Nazi death squad. The notion that we would detain no one at the border and abolish ICE and have no enforcement of immigration within our borders is completely unhelpful in this debate.
So yeah, I’m disappointed that the effort to push for reform on this issue right after the DACA declaration was unsuccessful. I’m also appalled by some of the decisions and most of the rhetoric of the President in the intervening time. If anything, he has been bringing the crisis into sharper focus, but perhaps focus is what we need, and, like before, we should not praise the means, but there may be providence in the ends.