This essay is part of our collection on Islam and immigration. See the full collection here.
During his presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump called for restrictions on Muslim travel to the United States. This call came in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida.
Trump’s proposed restrictions have evolved. After the San Bernardino attack, he urged a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” But, almost immediately, he moderated this proposal and suggested that certain exceptions could be made for Muslims who are US citizens, Muslims who are political officials of other countries, Muslim athletes attending sporting events, and so on. Later, Trump contemplated suspending the entry only of people from “the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism.”
The purpose of Trump’s proposal was the protection of American citizens. As he declared: “Only this way will we make America Great Again and Safe Again.”
There were plenty of negative reactions to Trump’s proposal. The most well-known was certainly that of Khizr Khan, the American Muslim and Gold Star father who questioned the constitutionality of Trump’s proposal in a speech at the Democratic National Convention last July. In August, I offered a moral analysis from a Thomistic perspective of Trump’s proposal here at Public Discourse. It’s important to stress that my analysis was a moral one, not a legal or constitutional one. Legal and constitutional analyses are clearly relevant as well.
Now, as president, Trump has issued an executive order that in certain respects follows the proposal that he made as a candidate. In this essay, I offer a moral analysis of the executive order from a Thomistic perspective.
A Moral Look at Candidate Trump’s Proposal
In my previous essay, I pointed out that, as Thomists see things, the principal concern of any government is the common good of the community it governs. Candidate Trump’s proposal called upon the US government to fulfill its obligation to protect the lives of American citizens. Because many recent terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, Trump judged it appropriate to prevent Muslims from entering the country until a proper program could be developed to screen out actual or possible terrorists.
I argued that it is irrelevant to object that people who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam have misunderstood their religion. For security purposes, it doesn’t matter whether they have gotten their religion right or wrong. What matters is that we see a marked tendency within a given population to commit acts of terror against US citizens.
I see no obvious moral problem with temporarily banning the entry of non-refugee Muslims (especially given that Trump left a lot of room for exceptions). But banning the entry of Muslim refugees is a different matter. While no government has an obligation to help foreign citizens when doing so endangers the common good of the political community it serves, it’s not clear in what (if any) circumstances it could turn away refugees if that means putting their lives at risk. So, I proposed setting up holding facilities for Muslim refugees. As long as there were genuine security concerns, they wouldn’t necessarily be permitted to travel freely about the country or be given immigrant status. But freedom of movement could be permitted at some future point along with the offer of immigrant status once those security concerns were addressed.
Would such an arrangement satisfy the demands of Christian charity? Aquinas teaches that charity binds us to love all our fellow human beings, even our enemies. Nevertheless, in the Summa’s treatise on charity he also teaches that “no one should give way to his neighbor in anything evil but only in what is good.” In other words, charity doesn’t oblige us to let others do evil. If a particular population—or elements within it—is a credible threat to the common good, charity doesn’t demand that we renounce protecting the common good from this perceived threat.
President Trump’s Executive Order
On January 27, exactly one week after his inauguration, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which puts into place some of the measures to protect American citizens against Islamist terror that he had proposed as a candidate. However, it should be noted that the text of the order doesn’t use the words “Muslim,” “Islamist,” or “Islam.” The order bears the title “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” As the title relates, and as the order specifies, its purpose is “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”
According to the order:
Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.
The order notes that State Department policy at the time prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the people involved in the September 11 attack.
A Department of Homeland Security fact sheet issued on January 29 and meant to interpret the executive order states that “nearly all travelers, except US citizens, traveling on passports from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen will be temporarily suspended from entry to the United States.” Except for Syria, these countries aren’t mentioned in the executive order. The DHS fact sheet reports that the seven countries subject to the ban “were designated by Congress and the Obama Administration as posing a significant enough security risk to warrant additional scrutiny in the visa waiver context.”
Both the executive order and the DHS fact sheet specify that the entry suspension is for ninety days. Both texts also state that the suspension is intended to allow time for proper security screening procedures to be developed. Finally, both texts explain that DHS and the Department of State have the authority to grant exceptions to the ban on a case-by-case basis.
The only country mentioned in the executive order is Syria. Here is what President Trump has to say about Syria in his executive order:
I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the [United States Refugee Admissions Program] to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.
No timeline is given for the lifting of the ban on the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. But there is no suggestion that it will be permanent.
Beyond the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, the executive order places a 120-day suspension on all other refugees. But it also permits DHS and the Department of State to grant exceptions to the refugee ban on a case-by-case basis.
A Moral Look at the Executive Order
The moral analysis that I offered of Candidate Trump’s proposal can also be applied to President Trump’s executive order. Here I go further into the refugee question and reply to the objection that the executive order amounts to religious discrimination.
In my previous essay, I asserted that turning away refugees from the civil war in Syria would endanger their lives and suggested that this is something we ought not to do. But I didn’t develop an argument to back up these claims. Here it is:
It’s not necessarily morally wrong to turn away people who present themselves as refugees. There’s no incompatibility, for example, between being a refugee and being a terrorist. So we need a way to distinguish the two. In the present context, America should not turn away, even temporarily, those refugees who pose no discernible threat to US citizens and who have nowhere else to go but back to the life-threatening danger from which they fled. There is reason to think that we—and I include the US government here because of its responsibility to oversee our borders—should help, as far as we reasonably can, people who arrive on our shores in such situations.
To understand why, consider the principle of double effect. This principle has its conceptual origin in Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 64, a. 7. On the basis of this principle, an action that has both a good effect and an evil effect is sometimes morally permissible. Aquinas says that one condition for its permissibility is that the evil effect be “outside the intention” (praeter intentionem) of the agent. In other words, the evil effect can’t be the agent’s reason for doing the deed. Furthermore, he says that the evil effect must be proportionate to the good effect. Later scholastics added other conditions: that the action itself be morally good or morally indifferent and that the evil effect not be the instrument whereby the good effect is brought about.
Forcing refugees to return to where they came from could mean almost certain death or suffering for them. If they pose no discernible threat to our country, then turning them away might have an evil effect with no proportionate good effect. In such cases, I believe we would have an obligation to permit them to stay (though that doesn’t necessarily entail granting them immigrant status or freedom to travel in the United States).
Some people might object that the ban is immoral because it is de facto religious discrimination, since it is directed against people from Muslim-majority countries. But even if the executive order explicitly banned Muslims from entering the country on the same terms and for the same reason that it bans travelers from the seven countries listed on the DHS fact sheet, there would be nothing necessarily morally objectionable about it.
Why not? In judging the moral value of an action, two circumstances that we need to take into account are the identity of the agent (quis) and what (quid) he does (I-II, q. 7, a. 3). Sometimes the identity of the agent can be decisive in determining the moral value of the action, but not always. On the other hand, some actions ought never to be done by anyone in any situation. Murder is that sort of action.
In my view, therefore, a government is morally justified in taking appropriate measures against any population it reasonably believes is a threat to the lives of the citizens it is bound to protect. It doesn’t matter whether that population is Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, French, vegan, or whatever. “Appropriate measures” is the key term here. Applying the principle of double effect again, we can say that whatever evil these measures bring about must be proportionate to the good they accomplish. And, indeed, the other three conditions should be respected too.
Let’s keep in mind that all of the bans are temporary. This makes them even less morally questionable, if they are at all. Aside from the refugee bans, I am arguing that the bans aren’t morally questionable. In fact, in enacting them, the US government would appear to be carrying out its duty of protecting the lives of US citizens.
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.