I’m not sure how to begin an essay like this because it’s a genre of writing that I have not really done for Where Peter Is before. This site features everything from personal reflection to theological disputation, but blind rage is generally outside the ambit of tones and styles that we run. Typically this is for good reason; while the emotion of anger is not morally wrong, disproportionate or inarticulately expressed anger is counterproductive. In some cases it even constitutes wrath, one of the seven cardinal vices. However, once in a while something happens in human affairs to which righteous rage is the only morally appropriate—perhaps even the only sane—response. President Joe Biden’s continuation of the inhumane border and migrant policies of the preceding administration—using the exact same rules set by that administration to justify tactics that are sometimes even more brutal—is one such case.
The pictures were all over the news last week: Border Guards on police horses running down Haitian migrants, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (himself a Cuban émigré whom one might expect to know better) announcing “at least” one to three deportation flights every day, immigrant and refugee activists staring in slack-jawed horror as the grandees of the Biden administration, soused on the upper-middle-class wine-track post-Christian moral smugness of the Democratic Party’s internal culture, shamelessly put into place policies that would have gotten Donald Trump and his people impotently pilloried by unfunny late-night comedians for months on end. Rightly so; the policies for which these people attacked the Trump administration were inhumane, and the Biden administration’s continuation of them is inhumane as well.
What makes me even angrier at the Biden border policy than I was at the Trump border policy is the sense of betrayal. Trump’s border policy, while terrible, was more or less what he promised it would be during the 2016 campaign. Biden, on the other hand, ran on reversing the racist and nationalist enormities of Trump’s tenure, speaking in grandiosely civil-religious terms of the “soul” of America and even, at times, of a battle between good and evil. Many Catholics uncomfortable with Biden’s stance on the other issue area on which he openly flouts Catholic moral teaching—abortion—voted for him anyway due to abject disgust at the perversely iconic “kids in cages” imagery that encapsulated Trump’s treatment of Latin American migrants.
Instead of kids in cages, we now have, again, armed men on police horses running down affrighted Haitians like something out of a Mad Max movie or a Trujillo-era ethnic purge. The fact that it’s specifically Haitians who are involved should not escape us. Haiti is by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—and indeed the poorest country in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific island nations—precisely because of hundreds of years of policy decisions by the Western powers explicitly intended to punish it for having the unbridled temerity to gain its independence through a successful slave revolt.
This history is long and shameful. First Charles X of France imposed a treaty on the newly independent country that had it compensating French slavers and their descendants for the loss of their “property” (the Haitian people) out of its own sovereign debt. This debt, including interest, was not paid off until well into the twentieth century. Then the United States developed an interest in Haiti. In the 1990s and 2000s the US did a series of rinse-and-repeat installations and depositions of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a laicized Salesian priest who once said that his goal was to lift Haiti “from misery to poverty.” Apparently the idea of Haitians not being miserable has been a bridge too far for every US President after Bill Clinton (if not longer), and evidently the United States isn’t a country that feels a sense of responsibility for past wrongs towards the Hatian people. I can’t imagine why not, since we Americans as a people do feel such a sense towards other countries that we’ve spent decades making even worse than they already were, such as Afghanistan and, in an earlier generation, Vietnam.
Whatever the case, Biden is now a Catholic President who has flagrantly gone against Catholic teaching in not one but two major areas of sociocultural policymaking. Abortion is one thing—the Democratic Party’s base is increasingly strident on the issue and some might argue that Biden has caved to sheer political pressure on it. What’s happening at the border is harder to understand, since on this issue Church teaching and Biden’s political support base see eye to eye. It’s possible that the temptation to wield the reins, or whips, of power against the vulnerable is just too overwhelming for anybody who ends up holding them—a sort of “border control as One Ring” hypothesis. If you can send armed horsemen to beat people up and then fly them out of the country (which is an intrinsically evil act), you will eventually do so. The sorts of people who would want to have that power can, perhaps, simply not help themselves when it comes to using it once they have it.
In fact, this is one of the most charitable possible interpretations of why the Biden administration is continuing these policies; almost all plausible alternatives are even less flattering. White people swung towards the Democrats in last year’s election, Hispanics away from them; maybe Biden is trying to pander to policies he thinks white people like? The Republicans have been crowing about a “Biden border crisis” for months; maybe he wants to deprive them of that talking point. Maybe he cares about that more than he cares about human rights or his moral duties to other people? No possibility here makes him look good. This is apparently an administration drunk on liberal self-righteousness that is now using its claims of moral superiority to excuse itself for behavior that is likely making Hungary’s Viktor Orban envious.
Serendipitously, Pope Francis described this sort of self-righteousness — a psychological term for it is “moral licensing” — in this Sunday’s Angelus. He said: “Sometimes we too, instead of being humble and open communities, can give the impression of being the ‘top of the class’ and keeping others at a distance; instead of trying to walk with everyone, we can display show off our ‘believer’s license’: ‘I am a believer’, ‘I am Catholic’, ‘I belong to this association, to that one’, and the others, poor things, do not. This is a sin.”
It certainly is a sin, and it is one that the Biden administration, despite not being particularly informed by Catholic orthodoxy (at least at this point in time), is manifestly committing on other grounds. When Joe Biden ran for president, he did so with an explicit promise to reverse the inhumane policies of his predecessor. At a campaign event in December 2019, he stated, “The idea that anyone will be deported without actually having committed a felony or a serious crime is going to end in my administration.” His campaign’s immigration plan stated that he “believes we must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers.” Based on his administration’s recent actions, it seems these were empty words.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.