The ‘Ethics’ of Trump’s Border Wall

The ‘Ethics’ of Trump’s Border Wall

Originally Published in The New York Times.

A wall would cause harm to immigrants and refugees, all of whom are equal to us in the eyes of God.

By Joseph W. Tobin

Cardinal Tobin is the archbishop of Newark. 

Jan. 30, 2019

A Honduran asylum seeker and her daughter on the Mexican side of the border near Brownsville, Tex., last year after being denied entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.CreditCreditLoren Elliott/Reuters

Is the border wall ethical? President Trump has suggested the wall is moral and those who oppose it immoral. His critics claim the opposite. 

To answer this, we have to consider its effect on humans. What harm could a border wall cause to immigrants and refugees, all of whom are equal to us in the eyes of God? 

Some people who cross the border are in desperate search of work to support their families. A wall would probably drive them into more remote areas of the desert or mountains, possibly to their deaths, as the forces driving them — violence, persecution and extreme poverty — are more life threatening than a risky border crossing. In fact, close to 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 in the mid-1990s.

The latest arrivals at our border are primarily asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who, when they cross the border and ask for protection, are in compliance with both our domestic and our international laws — the Refugee Act of 1980 and the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocols.

A wall would prevent asylum seekers from asking for protection at any point along our border — their right under the law — and would leave many of them at the mercy of drug cartels and other criminal groups in northern Mexico. More humane ways to achieve border security can be found to avoid these harmful consequences, through technology, additional legal avenues for entry and policies that address the factors pushing migration. 

You must also look at the intent of someone who wants to construct a wall in order to determine its morality. 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. The administration has just instituted a policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum seekers to stay in that country until their hearings, a process that could keep them vulnerable to organized crime for months or years.

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. He also ignores the adverse impact of the wall on the environment, landowners and border communities, like the harm it can cause to wildlife and vegetation, the livelihoods of ranchers and farmers and cross-border commerce.

Other policies his administration has pursued, including family separation, the rollback of asylum laws, family detention, the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and termination of Temporary Protected Status for most of its beneficiaries, show that the administration’s intent is to rid the United States of as many immigrants — legal or otherwise — as possible.

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. His justification for the wall is based upon lies and smears against the vast majority of immigrants who are law-abiding and moral, but whom he paints as less than human.

The president likes to highlight violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, for example, but fails to point out that immigrants commit crimes, including violent ones, at a much lower rate than citizens. All Americans grieve the harm caused when a violent crime is committed. That does not mean they agree that a border wall is the most effective way to prevent it. 

A wall itself is not immoral, but it can be constructed for an immoral purpose. President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan both resisted the Berlin Wall, which prevented millions in the Soviet Bloc from seeking freedom in the West. It eventually came down.

Immigration reform that is humane and honors our nation’s values must finally be enacted, and the root causes of global migration addressed. This is the moral direction in which the president should lead the nation.


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