By Kathy O’Leary
Pax Christi New Jersey state coordinator
On Thursday, June 18th, the US Supreme Court issued a decision on the DACA program. It can stay, but only for now, and only because of technicalities in how the Trump administration went about things.
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It is a program that was enacted by executive order under the Obama administration, but only after extreme pressure from young undocumented people, mostly students, who were brought to the United States as children by their parents. It provided a new form of temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of young people across the United States under 30 years of age. It was created in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.
Its benefits, to those who can meet the criteria for the program, including paying the $495 renewal every two years, are undeniable. It opens up new opportunities for education and employment and provides relief from most ICE enforcement, including detention and deportation. However, much like refugee status, it was never meant to be permanent, and also, much like refugee status, it leaves many recipients with a feeling of being in limbo and unable to plan for the future. However, it was also granted to a group of people considered “desirable” and “worthy”, reinforcing the troubling narrative of the “deserving immigrant” often deployed by xenophobes and opponents of comprehensive immigration reform.
On Thursday the Supreme Court issued two opinions. One was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, a Catholic appointed by George W. Bush. The second, concurring opinion, was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, also a Catholic, who was appointed by Barack Obama.
Chief Justice Roberts confined his opinion to the technical failings in the way in which the Trump administration attempted to terminate the program and the legal arguments that the administration’s lawyers made in defending the program’s termination. He not only ignored the myriad statements of members of the Trump administration demonstrating racial animus toward immigrants, he argued that there was no racial bias had influencing the decision to terminate the DACA program.
Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with Roberts. She wrote that the words of the president himself, who referred to immigrants as “people who have lots of problems,” “the bad ones,” “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists,” suggest that the decision to rescind the program was “contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus.” A determination of this kind by the majority of the court would have given weight to the equal protection argument, (the principle that all people must be protected equally regardless of any bias) that the plaintiffs had brought as part of their case to block the termination of the DACA program.
Had Sotomayor’s opinion been the majority opinion for the court, it would have made any future attempt by the Trump administration to do away with DACA much more difficult, if not impossible. Roberts’ opinion, on the other hand, all but gives the Trump administration a blueprint for how to go about ending the DACA program in such a way as to survive a court challenge.
The acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, also a Catholic, wasted little time in denouncing the decision. In an official press release from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), he is quoted as saying: “The Supreme Court’s decision is an affront to the rule of law and gives Presidents power to extend discretionary policies into future Administrations. No Justice will say that the DACA program is lawful, and that should be enough reason to end it.” Secretary Cuccinelli seems to place his reverence for law above his love for his fellow human beings. There was even a threat from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency tasked with processing renewals and applications for DACA, which reports to DHS, to ignore the Supreme Court ruling and cease processing renewals and applications- so much for the love of the rule of law. That statement was later walked back.
However, please do not confuse this with a cautionary tale of the consequences of elections or to the importance to the makeup of the Supreme Court, because it is not. Our government and the Supreme Court are a reflection of our society and at no other time in history has it been such a strong reflection of the Catholic Church in the United States. Brian Burch, President of CatholicVote.org would agree. He has called the Trump administration, “the most Catholic administration we’ve had in American history.”
There are many high ranking Catholics in the Trump administration who have helped shape or peddle xenophobic narratives and policy, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. The majority of the Supreme court is also made up of Catholics. Alito, Kavanaugh, Roberts, Thomas and Sotomayor are all Catholic. The written opinions of the court and the way in which members of the Trump administration support laws, regulations and policies are a reflection of the beliefs and ideology that surely is formed in no small part by their faith and by the culture of the church in which they were raised, and the Catholic schools and institutions which they have attended, or of which they have been a part over the years.
The reaction to this decision from many Catholic organizations, beginning with the USCCB, was in itself disappointing. The USCCB took care to point out that DACA recipients had passed a background check. They also made sure to estimate how many billions of dollars DACA recipients contribute to the economy annually, in apparent contradiction of the innate value of every human being regardless of the dollar value placed on their output as units of labor. The Justice for Immigrants Campaign followed with a call to pass the DREAM Act- legislation that would provide a path to citizenship, but only for people who fit criteria similar to DACA. While the USCCB quoted scripture calling for compassion without any qualifying limitations, the USCCB and the Justice for Immigrants Campaign both restricted their ask of congress to passing immigration reform to a limited number of “worthy” immigrants.
Creating community starts with transforming ourselves and our church. We must remember that as people of faith our calls for justice must be rooted in God’s boundless love for each and every one of us. Our demands therefore should not be restricted by what is perceived as possible or practical. Our work on any issue also needs to be connected to the collective struggle of all who are poor or marginalized. When we, as church, create community that reflects the limitless, unqualified love of God, it will be reflected in our society.
This is a lesson that I learned from Pax Christi, but it is also a lesson that I learned from spending time with some amazing young organizers from in and around New Jersey, some of whom were also DREAMers. They rarely mention God, but boy do they preach the Gospel. As Saint Francis said, “preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”
I reflect often on a quote from Fr. Bryan Massingale. “We act justly not because we are intellectually convinced, but because we are passionately moved. Compassion moves the will to justice.” As people of faith, we should never return racist arguments with intellectual ones. As people called to public witness by belief in a radically loving God and the example of the non-violent Jesus, the response to grave systemic injustice should never be to call for mercy, but only for a “deserving” few.
Yes, we should take this moment to celebrate this small reprieve for those young people who are DACA recipients, but this pause should be brief. We have work to do, starting with ourselves, the people who sit next to us in the pews, the church hierarchy and the institutions that associate and identify with the Catholic Church.
Here is a short postscript for my fellow Pax Christi members, particularly those of you who consider yourselves white allies. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to take that lamp out from under that bushel basket and get out there. Let it shine without limit. Our brothers, sisters and siblings in the struggle can use all the extra light they can get. It is awfully dark out.