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November 19, 2017
Don't shut US doors to refugees, bishops plead
A Syrian refugee child at a camp in Serbia, October 2015. Credit: vlada93/Shutterstock.
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.- With people fleeing humanitarian crises around the world, President Donald Trump’s new executive order halting refugee admissions is wrong, Catholic bishop and aid groups maintain.

“We remain deeply troubled by the human consequences of the revised executive order on refugee admissions and the travel ban. While we note the Administration's efforts to modify the Executive Order in light of various legal concerns, the revised Order still leaves many innocent lives at risk,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin stated March 6. Bishop Vasquez chairs the U.S. bishops' committee on migration.

“The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal,” he said.

“However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.”

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations at Catholic Relief Services, said that “with the most refugees in the world since World War II, now is not the time for the world’s leader in refugee resettlement to back down.”

Trump issued a revised executive order on immigration and refugee admissions on Monday, revoking his old order that was blocked by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A 120-day ban on all refugee admissions remains in the revised executive order, and Trump capped the total number of refugee admissions at 50,000 for fiscal year 2017. In contrast, the Obama administration accepted 85,000 refugees in FY 2016, including more than 12,000 from Syria.

35,000 refugees have already been accepted this fiscal year, O’Keefe noted, which means that under the new policy very few refugees will be accepted from March through September.

“Resettling only 50,000 refugees a year, down from 110,000, does not reflect the need, our compassion, and our capacity as a nation,” Bishop Vasquez stated. “We have the ability to continue to assist the most vulnerable among us without sacrificing our values as Americans or the safety and security of our nation.”

There are several humanitarian crises around the world, O'Keefe said. The Syrian civil war, raging since 2011, has already displaced over 11 million and created almost 5 million refugees, but there are also large conflicts in Iraq, Nigeria, and Ukraine. Four famines in Africa and the Middle East are also worsening, he said.

With all this, “the U.S. needs to be increasing our humanitarian assistance and helping people where they are, as well as taking more of the most vulnerable people who are fleeing violence as refugees, and we can safely take.”

Although the order says that the 120-day ban on refugee resettlement gives the administration time to review the security of the program, the process is already secure, O’Keefe insisted.

“Refugees, though, are already subjected to extreme vetting to get here,” he said, adding that the process often takes at least two years and involves the work of 13 federal agencies.

The indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, featured in the first executive order, is not in the new one. Neither is the prioritization for refugee admissions for those of minority religions who suffer religious persecution.

O’Keefe praised the omission of both policies.

“Being a Syrian doesn’t predispose one to any of the things that our vetting system would look out for,” he said of there being no indefinite ban on Syrian refugee resettlement.

Also, religious-based persecution is already one of five criteria of vulnerability for those refugees who are being vetted for admission to the U.S., he noted, adding that some “local church leaders” have said that a special designation “wouldn’t be helpful” and “actually exposes them to greater danger.”

However, some have been pushing for a special refugee status for persecuted religious minorities, especially those in Syria.

Persecuted Christian minorities, including genocide victims, must have a “fair outcome” when looking to resettle elsewhere, Andrew Walther, vice president of communications and strategic planning at the Knights of Columbus, explained to CNA.

“As part of the review of the refugee admissions procedure, the UNHCR referral process for refugees should be closely scrutinized, and the serious inequities in the number of Syrian refugees admitted from communities targeted for genocide should be rectified,” he said. Refugees must first register with the UNHCR to be eligible for resettlement.

Yet although Christians make up only a small percentage of the Syrian population, the percentage of Christian refugees from Syria who are resettled in the U.S. is even smaller, Walther noted.

“The Obama administration policy was to prioritize these groups, but despite this they remain severely underrepresented in U.S. refugee admissions, so it’s clear that a fair outcome is even more important than a stated priority,” he said.

Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of Antioch has warned that Christians hoping to be resettled in the U.S. or Canada have never even had the chance.

“I personally heard on several occasions  from  many of our Christian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, that their applications for refugee visas, either to the USA or Canada,  are without any response, if not refused by the consulates of the USA and Canada,” he stated.

Elsewhere in the executive order, a ban on entry by most foreign nationals into the U.S. from six countries is still in effect. The countries are Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, while Iraq, which was formerly on the list, is now omitted.

Exceptions to the visa ban include refugees already admitted to the U.S., lawful permanent residents, those who received visas before 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 27 – the date of the original executive order – and those travelling on diplomatic visas.

Yemen and Somalia have “developing famines” and their own conflicts, so “it strikes us as cruel, actually, to restrict the number of people who can come,” O’Keefe said.

Catholic Charities, USA, whose affiliates partner with the government to help resettle refugees in the U.S., spoke out strongly against the temporary refugee ban.

“At the heart of the work of Catholic Charities is the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the most vulnerable among us,” Sister Donna Markham O.P., president of Catholic Charities, USA, stated on Monday.

“Today’s executive order not only hinders that work, but also effectively abandons, for four months, the thousands of endangered refugees fleeing violence, starvation and persecution,” she said.

The group “is leading an ambitious $8 million campaign to support the work of local Catholic Charities agencies in caring for refugees.”