At the end of August, another academic year began, bringing with it the raft of broadcast e-mail messages from Georgetown’s administration reminding us of our duty to treat all members of the University community respectfully. In addition to welcoming us back to campus, these messages exhort us “to reiterate our commitment to diversity and civility as we commence the school year,” to act so as “to ensure Georgetown is an inclusive, welcoming community,” to support University “efforts and initiatives to foster an inclusive and respectful social culture,” and to recognize that at Georgetown “[w]e are committed to the disinterested pursuit of truth and we sustain a community that supports … ‘the ungovernable play of the inquiring mind.'” These are wonderful sentiments.
Then, on September 5, the Trump administration announced that it was terminating the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. DACA allows children who were brought into the United States illegally to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. The program was created by President Obama in June of 2012 by executive order. In its announcement, the Trump administration indicated that it was preserving the protections of the DACA recipients for six months to give Congress time to address the issue.
That same day, the President of Georgetown University sent a broadcast e-mail reacting to this announcement. In it, he indicated that he “had the opportunity to spend time with many of our undocumented students and reaffirm our deep commitment to them,” that the University has “partnered with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services to provide free legal support to our undocumented students,” and that the University has “and will continue to strongly advocate for a permanent legislative solution that creates a path towards citizenship for undocumented students.” He concluded his message by asserting that
We have the capacity, and responsibility, as a nation to provide a permanent legislative solution to support our undocumented students. These are extraordinary young people who are part of the fabric of our nation–the only home that they have known. We must find the moral imagination to care for them and work together to assure their safety and wellbeing.
Personally, I find this to be an admirable position for the University to take that shows both compassion for the individuals at risk and a commitment to work for more just immigration law. A statement like this would make me proud to be associated with Georgetown University, except …
Except that the President of Georgetown University’s message began by stating that “[t]his morning, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would move to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This is an unconscionable decision affecting eight hundred thousand young people around our country, including students right here at Georgetown.”
Unconscionable? Really? Did the President of the University just assert in an official broadcast message that no person of good conscience could support the decision to terminate DACA?
To call the decision unconscionable is to imply that it cannot be morally defended, that one who supports it must be ill-motivated. Is there really no morally reasonable argument in support of the decision?
How about this one?
In drafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were concerned to prevent the tyranny that they associated with King of England and that gave rise to the American revolution. Accordingly, they created a government of separated powers, investing the power to make but not enforce the law in the Congress and the power to enforce but not make the law in the Presidency. By requiring the President to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the drafters attempted to ensure that the branch of government that had the power to use force against the citizenry could do so only according to laws made by the representatives of that citizenry. By denying the President the power to ignore the law created by Congress, they sought to prevent tyranny by placing a direct check on the use of executive power.
By creating DACA by executive order, President Obama was failing to faithfully execute the law enacted by Congress. He was in essence unilaterally rewriting the law, thereby exercising the legislative power denied him by the Constitution. By terminating DACA with a six month delay, the Trump administration is returning legislative authority to Congress where it belongs, and giving the democratically elected representatives of the people the time they need to address the issue.
This may not be the argument that the Trump administration actually made in support of its decision. It is also not obviously correct. Perhaps it can be refuted. But isn’t it at least a reasonable one that a person of good conscience could support? Indeed, isn’t it one that even an advocate for the DACA beneficiaries could support since a legislative solution could give them permanent resident status, and free them from the limbo of the continual two year renewal process.
Or how about this argument?
For a representative democracy to function properly, elected officials must honor the promises they make during their campaigns, which the populace relies upon in deciding how to vote. President Trump promised to end the DACA program during his campaign. Therefore, the Trump administration is obligated to do so.
Or this one?
A commitment to the rule of law requires the uniform enforcement of the law duly enacted by Congress. This is undermined by allowing the executive to pick and choose which provisions of any particular piece of legislation to enforce. Such discretion would convert our government from a rule of law to a rule of men. Hence, the Trump administration must enforce the nation’s immigration law as enacted until it is changed by Congress.
These arguments may not be correct, but can’t a person of good conscience support them?
It is true, of course, that people can argue for the decision to terminate DACA on the basis of anti-immigrant animus, other forms of bigotry, or nationalistic white supremacy. Support for the decision on this basis may indeed be unconscionable. But this is clearly not the only basis on which to argue for the decision.
Why, then, would a University president not stop at compassionately pledging to support worthy individuals put at risk by the termination of DACA, but go on to characterize the political decision to end the program as unconscionable?
It is because so many of us at Georgetown, and many other other universities, live in an ideological bubble. Most of us don’t know any Trump supporters. Many of us don’t even know any Republicans. We found nothing untoward about Hillary Clinton’s characterization of Trump voters as a basket of deplorables. It is perfectly natural for us to associate those who disagree with our viewpoint with the type of people who marched in Charlottesville. And it is easy for us to assume that those who oppose DACA must do so out of bigotry or malevolence. Calling the decision to terminate DACA unconscionable doesn’t grate on our ears because we do not know any reasonable people who would disagree with us about it.
The problem with this attitude is that it gives the lie to the myriad exhortations to foster an inclusive, welcoming community that encourages civility and supports “the ungovernable play of the inquiring mind.” For, even if we are not aware of them, there are surely some Republicans (or others) among us that support the Administration’s decision to terminate DACA not out of bigotry, but after careful reflection on reasonable arguments like those detailed above. And to be informed by the president of the university that their considered position is unconscionable is anything but welcoming. Having the University declare their opinion outside the bounds of morally acceptable discourse hardly encourages the ungovernable play of the inquiring mind.
Statements such as this actually promote incivility.
Contrary to the University’s professed commitment to civility, statements such as this actually promote incivility by suggesting that those who disagree with our position are not merely mistaken or misinformed, but morally deficient or ill-motivated. We treat those we believe to be of good character but mistaken with respect as interlocutors to engage with in collegial debate. But we treat those we believe to be ill-motivated as adversaries to be defeated, and we frequently have no compunction about excluding them from our “disinterested pursuit of truth.”
There was no ill-will behind the president’s message about DACA. His intention was obviously to make a strong statement of Georgetown University’s institutional commitment to justice and to respect for the dignity of all human beings. There was no conscious design to chill the speech of conservatives or make Trump supporters feel unwelcome on campus. His description of the Trump administration’s decision as unconscionable merely reflects the fact that he lives in a bubble in which it does not occur to anyone that people of good will could support the decision.
But this is unfortunate because, for a small (or perhaps not so small) minority of the University community, statements such as this alter the meaning of all those welcome back e-mails we just received. For to this group, the message now sounds like Georgetown is committed to maintaining a welcoming community and respectful social culture for people of all national, racial, religious, cultural, and social backgrounds as long as they share our ideological perspective. And this is not quite the message they were hoping for.