Is the wall debate about dueling parties or moralities?

Published 1:40 pm Friday, January 25, 2019


Contributing Columnist

The Jan. 21 Time cover features Speaker Pelosi behind her “subpoena-pult” and President Trump behind his slingshot practicing “The Art of the Duel.” What exactly is the duel?

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Some would call their conflict over the wall dueling egos; other would label it dueling party politics. The 2018 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 80 percent of Republicans favored the wall, 45 percent strongly; while 80 percent of Democrats opposed the wall, 61 percent strongly. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll has Republicans up to 87 percent, and up to 70 percent feeling strongly.

However, there are also reasons to dub the duel as dueling moralities.   

When Pelosi called the Wall “an immorality,” Trump responded that walls are not immoral. They are the opposite because they save lives. If each of them regards the position of the other as immoral, maybe some ethical sorting of these claims is in order.

Ethical theorists might direct us to contrasting definitions of the problem for which President Trump insists on the wall as the solution. Both sides might call border security a problem, but they differ about its magnitude and what kind of barrier is called for.

Senator McConnell chides Democratic leaders for having voted to authorize 700 miles in physical barriers in 2006 and the 80 percent of Senate Democrats who voted for $1.5 billion dollars for border barriers last year, only now to oppose what he regards as the President’s reasonable $5.7 billion demand.

Before we settle on border security as the basic issue, we need to look behind it to immigration policy.  President Trump regards the immigration system as “badly broken for a long time.” His opponents might not state the problem that strongly, but leaders in both parties have been advocating and then backing off and avoiding major immigration reform for more than thirteen years.

The differences over immigration policy run deep. Opponents charge each other with wanting open borders on the one hand and closed borders on the other. The Trump administration pushes zero tolerance for asylum seekers, and his base is quick to label as amnesty any mention of a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

One side speaks of the caravans approaching our borders as “the criminals, the gangs, the traffickers, the drugs” (the President’s words). Undocumented Mexicans have been characterized similarly. The other side sees the caravans as composed overwhelmingly of desperate people fleeing death, rape, violence, poverty and torture. They cite the low number of suspected terrorists apprehended at the southern border compared to a much larger number at the northern border and the lower numbers on crime among immigrants than among U.S. citizens.

With these contrasting views of “the problem” comes differing moral discourse.  Both sides speak of justice and compassion. On one side, however, justice is about law and order. The undocumented families are criminals. They have broken the law and should be dealt with accordingly. The separation of children from their parents brought such an outcry that the practice was stopped, but the reunification is still incomplete. Compassion is invoked by President Trump as the reason for his address of “the humanitarian crisis at the border” with a three-year moratorium on deportation of Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status holders.

On the other side, justice is invoked in support of better processing of the applicants for asylum. The focus is on the conditions in migrants’ countries of origin, the conditions in refugee camps, separation of families, the hardships of workers affected by the shutdown, and delays in the asylum process. Without demanding open borders, this moral stance urges compassion toward the marginalized, the endangered and the oppressed.

Another locus of division is in the philosophical or religious assumptions or value systems of the opposing groups. We have already mentioned differing views of the people seeking entry or asylum. Are they assumed to be criminals, terrorists, rapists, gang members and drug dealers, or “huddled masses yearning to be free,” to quote Emma Lazarus?

These assumptions or value systems also include the “isms” we inhabit or espouse. On the one hand, we have white nationalism (including white Christian nationalism). Anxious about the trend of the U.S. toward being a white-minority nation, this ideology hopes to stem the flow of Hispanics and Latinos into our nation. Our national character depends on it.

On the other hand, we have multiculturalism or internationalism or globalism. This stance regards diversity and inclusiveness as central to our national character. It welcomes and celebrates the contributions of immigrant cultures to our national character, and it pays attention to conditions in other countries that refugees are fleeing and to responsibility that we as a nation share for some of those conditions. 

Finally, we have the issue of divided (or dueling) loyalties — party vs. party, the wall-affected and/or protected vs. the shutdown-affected. Is the focus the taxpayers in my town or district or nation? Or our party’s or president’s base? What about the 800,000 federal workers who have not gotten paid during the shutdown, or the government contractors that have not, or the small businesses that serve government employees, or the economy in general? What about my religious, racial/ethnic, gender, national, etc. identity group? What about the voiceless, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the impoverished, the oppressed and the discriminated against? Which loyalty should take priority, and why?

In his support for the Trump proposal to fund the Wall and end the shutdown, Sen. Mitch McConnell stated that he wants “what works for everyone.” Speaker Pelosi has said something similar. One would hope that everyone wants what contributes to the common good and not just to my/our narrow self-interest. What often happens, though, is that those in power define the common good for their own benefit and fail to notice or appreciate the condition of the least advantaged. “Immoralities” deny our common humanity. What are our best tools for detecting and rejecting them?