Catholic Politicians

So Much for Dialogue: Cardinal Tobin Talks Past Trump

Deal W. Hudson

January 31, 2019

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin published an opinion piece in the New York Times about “The ‘Ethics’ of Trump’s Border Wall” (January 30, 2019) Tobin’s argument is presumptuous, accusatory, and riddled with factual errors. In that way, it’s no different from most of what we read and hear from liberals who attack President Trump.

Tobin starts by asking if the border wall is moral. In his conclusion, he admits, “A wall itself is not immoral,” but can be immoral if “it can be constructed for an immoral purpose.”

That explains why Tobin spends his 800 words struggling to explain why President Trump is operating with an “immoral purpose.” Just what does he count as evidence for proving the President’s immoral purpose?

First, the bishop writes, we must consider the wall’s “effect on humans.” OK, but for the sake of argument, Tobin narrows that down to the possible “harm” to immigrants and refugees at the Southern border of the United States. And, oh yes, let us remember they “are equal to us in the eyes of God.” I’m pretty sure President Trump would agree with this statement—in fact, he hasn’t said anything to the contrary.

Tobin worries that a wall would repel immigrants to “more remote areas of the desert or mountains, possibly to their deaths.” It seems to me if those immigrants were smart enough to view the US as a place where a better life might be had, they wouldn’t suddenly become stupid and head for the desert.

Then Tobin says something very perplexing. He claims since the mid-1990s nearly 8,000 migrants “have died in Arizona and parts of Texas since the construction of the San Diego and El Paso sectors of the wall….” Scratching my head, I want to ask the bishop how he can blame the wall—they died on the other side of the border, in the US!

Tobin then describes the recent immigrants from Central America who, as we have seen, have been organized into caravans of thousands. He argues they are “in compliance with our domestic and international laws” when, pay attention to the wording, “they cross the border and ask for protection.”

That’s true. However, the purpose of the wall is to keep them from crossing the border. Those who successfully cross, whether legally or illegally, are being treated according to the law.

Tobin recognizes this, noting a wall would present them from crossing the border, which he calls “their right under law.”

Wrong. No one has a legal “right” to cross our border. Their legal rights begin when they succeed in crossing. The only group that has ever been granted the right to cross US borders are Canadian-born Aboriginal citizens according to the “Jay Treaty” of 1794.

I agree with Tobin when he says we should seek “more humane ways to achieve border security” through technology. But Tobin has something different in mind, such as “additional legal avenues for entry and policies that address the factors pushing migration.”

In other words, change the law.

At this point, Cardinal Tobin argues we must look “at the intent of someone who wants to construct a wall to determine its morality.” What he claims next about President Trump is factually wrong and morally presumptuous: “In this case, it is clear that Mr. Trump wants to deny entry to anyone crossing the southern border, even those who have a right to cross and seek protection and are no threat to us.”

“Clear?” It’s not clear to me or the millions of American who voted for President Trump. When has the President even hinted that he wants to end all immigration at the Southern border? I’ll tell you: Never!

When anyone attacks a public figure, who he does not know, about that public figure’s “intent,” we know it’s personal.

Tobin wants to indict President Trump’s personal moral character. Somehow the bishop has seen into the President’s heart and knows he intends to keep anyone from entering the US from the South.

And having claimed this, Tobin doesn’t stop: “Mr. Trump is not acting with concern for the impact of the wall on their lives, including those of children, who would remain subject to danger.”

Just how does Cardinal Tobin know that? Is he the new Padre Pio, a reader of souls?

For some reason, unexplained, the bishop adds that the wall will have an “adverse impact” on the environment, causing harm to “wildlife and vegetation.” True, the wall will cast a long shadow in the morning and late afternoon, blocking the full heat of the sun.

Whether this is a welcome respite for plants and animals could be debated, but environmental arguments don’t belong in this column.      

Tobin castigates the “Remain in Mexico” policy that keeps immigrants outside the US until their hearings because “that could keep them vulnerable to organized crime for months or years.”

Other than the fact that some illegal immigrants have brought crime to the US—the M13 gang from El Salvador—Tobin doesn’t mention anything about the responsibility of other countries to protect their own citizens from harm.

If you want to address “root causes,” as Tobins suggests, why can’t the US help these nations shut down their organized crime?   

Tobin makes another broad claim, that the President wants “to rid the United States of as many immigrants—legal or otherwise—possible.”

He cites as evidence the ending of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and doesn’t mention the the district court decision that determined that DACA was very likely “unconstitutional,” because Congress never passed it, or that the President recently offered Democrats a plan to reimplement DACA permanently in exchange for border wall funding.

Tobin also laments the change in Temporary Protected Status. He doesn’t mention TPS was created to help refugees to enter the US from countries where conditions have become extremely unsafe. The recent changes under this administration only extend to Yemen, Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador, and are not intended as permanent.

If anyone doubts Cardinal Tobin has made this personal, read this:

The way in which Mr. Trump has argued for a wall also is instructive. In trying to secure funding, he has cast all immigrants as criminals and threats to national security by spreading misleading and inaccurate information about them.

As a rhetorical flourish, this is overkill and weakens his argument. He goes on to accuse President Trump of “lies and smears,” yet that is precisely what Tobin is doing to Trump.

Then Tobin makes this factual claim: Trump “fails to point out that immigrants commit crimes, including violent ones, at a much lower rate than [US] citizens.”

What Tobin says is factual, if his two cited studies–reported by the Washington Post–are true. Except for “gambling, kidnapping, smuggling, and vagrancy,” immigrants were convicted of far fewer crimes than native-born residents, according to the Cato Institute 2015 study. I think this fact should become more prominent in the public debate. It surprised me.     

Cardinal Tobin ends with the example of the Berlin Wall, “which prevented millions in the Soviet Bloc from seeking freedom in the West.”

He also could have mentioned the wall built by Israel to lessen terrorist attacks, which it has, from the Occupied Territory of Palestine. Also not mentioned was the 14-mile wall built south of San Diego over twenty years ago. This wall succeeded in lowering illegal immigration from 100,000 per year to 5,000.

Then there are the great walls of history: The wall of Jericho recorded in the Book of Joshua; Hadrian’s Wall; and the Great Wall of China. Each did the job it was intended to do: protect those who built it from harm.

The Vatican Wall is sometimes laughed at when brought into the discussion, but should not be. It was built 39 feet high during the 9th century as a barrier against Muslim pirates who attacked from Southern Italy, which they controlled.

All this makes the point: When danger threatens, who blames the potential victim for building a wall?

To tell the truth, the bishops have shown little or no concern for border security. A common argument against border security is taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2441): The “first duty” of the government is not to protect its citizens but,

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 nation.

What bishops, like Tobin, often forget is that what the Catechism calls the “second duty:” “to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good” (2441).

The language of the Catechism will startle those who have been listening to the bishops on immigration during the past few years:

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 concerning 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.

If only bishops like Tobin would embrace the wise balance of the Catechism’s social teaching rather than ranting about the horror of the Wall.

That’s why there are two duties, to make sure that generosity does not become a danger, or that national security does not close our open arms.  It’s the responsibility of President Trump–and a Catechetical mandate–to “enforce the law for the sake of the common good.”