Leaders from six organizations want Americans and President Donald Trump to understand that refugees, especially those from war-torn Middle Eastern countries, are average people with careers, comfortable homes and loving families rather than see them as a monolithic threat to the United States.
Their appeal during a Feb. 1 news conference at Casa Italiana at Holy
Rosary Church in Washington came as refugees continued to be denied
entry into the U.S. nearly a week after Trump ordered a 120-day
suspension of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Officials of Catholic Charities USA, Migration and Refugee Services
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Legal Immigration
Network Inc., Catholic Relief Services, the Association of Catholic
Colleges and Universities and the Center for Migration Studies called on
Trump to rescind his presidential memorandum implementing the
suspension, saying the country has a moral obligation to welcome people
fleeing for their lives.
They called the world’s refugee crisis a pro-life issue.
“One of the issues for many of us in this country is that we can’t
imagine that the refugee is a person like ourselves, that many of the
people that are now caught in camps or horrible situations are people
like ourselves who woke up one morning and learned that everything they
had was destroyed,” said Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and
CEO of Catholic Charities USA.
“We all have to stop objectifying them. These are human beings like
you and I,” she said, recalling the people in northern Iraq she recently
contacted via online video communications.
Other leaders cited the country’s long history of welcoming refugees
as well as church teaching on welcoming the stranger. They said the U.S.
should not relinquish its role as a moral leader in refugee
resettlement, especially for those who have been cleared or are awaiting
final approval to enter the country. Any delay in their arrival puts
them at greater threat, the leaders said.
“These refugees are victims of the same violence that we are trying
to protect ourselves from,” said Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, senor
legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’
overseas relief and development agency. “And yet it is American
principles, of course, that we are trying to protect. So a
disproportionate security response leaves us wondering: What does it
mean to be American? What does it mean to be Catholic?”
Welcoming refugees can be an act that not only protects them but also
protects U.S. security, said Don Kerwin, executive director of the
Center for Migration Studies in New York City.
“It’s not really a
balance. Refugee protection actually advances and furthers security,” he
“That doesn’t mean that there doesn’t have to be careful screening
and that there’s responsibilities for improving that screening based on
intelligence,” Kerwin added. “Those need to be implemented. But the fact
is we have a very, very secure screening process for refugees. It’s
more secure than any other admission process for any other category of
Trump’s memorandum, one of three governing immigration issues during
the first week of his administration, suspends the entire U.S. refugee
resettlement program for 120 days and bans entry of all citizens from
seven majority-Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen
and Somalia — for 90 days. It also establishes religious criteria for
refugees, proposing to give priority to religious minorities over others
who may have equally compelling refugee claims.
The resettlement program’s suspension also will affect about 700
employees of Catholic Charities agencies nationwide, with layoffs
expected for nearly all of the workers because the stream of refugees
has ended, said Sister Markham.
“We absolutely depend on the partnership between public and private
funding to support these programs,” she explained. “We don’t have the
resources to carry them without that partnership. Four months carrying
700 employees with no income is not feasible for a charitable
organization like Catholic Charities.”
The bishops’ MRS department in conjunction with diocesan Catholic
Charities agencies resettled about 23,000 of the nearly 85,000 refugees
admitted into the U.S. in fiscal year 2016. The majority of them were
women and children, said William Canny, MRS executive director.
The number of refugees resettled is a small proportion of the 21
million refugees tallied worldwide by the office of the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees, Canny noted.
He also expressed concern that the resettlement program had enjoyed
bipartisan support from Congress and Democratic and Republican White
Houses over the years, but that “in the last year or so we saw a
breakdown” in such backing.
Trump’s other executive memoranda — one calling for a surge in
immigrant detention and deportation and the other setting the stage to
build a multibillion dollar 2,000 mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border
— drew criticism from Jean Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic
Legal Immigration Network.
An increase in enforcement by federal and local officials “threatens
due process and makes our communities and their residents, American and
foreign-born, less safe,” Atkinson said.
“We’re already seeing men and
women afraid to go out into their communities, to go to work, to take
their children to school to take them to medical appointments.”
While the organizational leaders pledged to advocate for refugees as
long as needed, they also invited Catholics to voice their objection to
the president’s actions.
J. Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy
at the Center for Migration Studies, said if Catholics mobilized, they
could influence the president to change his mind.
“This is a really important moment for Catholics in our country,” he
said. “The church is in a particular position to influence this
administration I think in positive ways on these issue. Catholics voted
for President Trump for various reasons, so they have the ability to
convince the administration that they are on the wrong course.”