WASHINGTON, D.C. — A unanimous court ruling that kept a temporary restraining order in place blocking President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees from being enforced was unanimously praised by representatives of U.S. Catholic relief agencies interviewed the next day by Crux.
The Feb. 9 ruling by a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a temporary restraining order by a U.S. District Court in Washington State that in effect froze Trump’s executive order that would have prevented refugees from entering the country for 120 days and imposed a 90-day “travel ban” on people coming from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa that have been linked to terrorist activity.
“We’re encouraged by the decision, especially because it allows us to continue to welcome refugees to the United States,” Matt Wilch, the refugee policy adviser for Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Crux.
Of the 85,000 refugees resettled in the United States last year, Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), working with Catholic Charities, parishes and affiliated agencies, resettled 23,000 of those refugees.
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities, USA, also praised the court’s action.
“Here at Catholic Charities, we’re really relieved with the ruling, because we are trying to serve a lot of refugees and immigrants here already and are committed to serving refugees fleeing persecution in the days ahead,” she told Crux.
As the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues to unfold, U.S. Catholic agencies like MRS and Catholic Charities have continued their work to carry out the Gospel’s call to “welcome the stranger.”
“Right now, Catholic Charities has over 45,000 people, mostly women and children, in our refugee resettlement and immigration programs,” Markham said, noting that 700 of its caseworkers are helping them find housing and jobs and with language proficiency and other programs, so they can build new lives for themselves and their families.
In a statement, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas, the chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, also praised the court’s ruling, saying, “We remain steadfast in our commitment to resettling refugees and all those fleeing persecution. At this time, we remain particularly dedicated to ensuring that affected refugee and immigrant families are not separated and that they continue to be welcomed to our country.
“We will continue to welcome the newcomer as it is a vital part of our Catholic faith and an enduring element of our American values and tradition,” Vasquez said.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network also welcomed the court’s decision to uphold the temporary restraining order against Trump’s executive action on refugees.
“The order is especially important in that it gives refugees who have been processed and are waiting to travel the time to make arrangements to get to the United States. This is one positive step in what is going to be a long haul in multiple courts,” Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of CLINIC, told Crux in an email interview.
CLINIC works with more than 300 independent nonprofit agencies throughout the United States, many of them affiliated with the Catholic Church, in providing legal services to immigrants. In the chaotic aftermath during the first days of the executive order, CLINIC joined other agencies in providing lawyers to immigrants detained at U.S. airports.
Kevin Appleby, the senior director for international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, agreed that the ruling “was the right decision,” but he cautioned that the court’s action was on a procedural matter and didn’t offer a ruling on the constitutionality of the president’s order.
Trump reacted to the court’s ruling by promising further legal action, saying the nation’s security is at risk.
Appleby – whose agency is a New York-based think tank on immigration issues that was founded by the Scalabrinian religious order – said he believes the president’s order could fuel extremism and be used as a propaganda tool by ISIS and other terrorist groups who want to convince alienated Muslims that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
“I think the executive order is misguided and not the proper approach to ensure our national security,” he said, noting that refugees entering the United States go through a rigorous vetting process that involves extensive screening and background checks.
“To a large degree, we’re already balancing national security and humanitarian interests” in welcoming refugees, he said.
The representatives of the Catholic agencies also noted the human impact of the president’s executive order on refugees.
Atkinson pointed out, “The impact of the executive order has been significant. Vulnerable refugees who had plane tickets to the United States were suddenly stranded, causing severe hardship and, in many cases, putting their lives at risk.”
She said the order caused families of U.S. citizens and residents to be separated as spouses, parents and children were refused entry.
“Employers, including hospitals, universities and companies lost human talent, at least temporarily,” she said, noting how in one case “federal agents handcuffed and detained a 5-year-old for hours while his mother waited in the airport for him and, in another, the 65-year-old mother of a U.S. citizen and member of our military was detained, held for more than 33 hours, and refused the use of a wheelchair.”
Wilch noted the president’s order “put a lot of uncertainty in refugees’ lives… Several thousand people poised and ready, after long vetting of 18 months to two years, were ready to come to the United States when the order was issued.”
Refugees in those situations, he added, usually have given up their apartments or rooms, sold everything they own in order to have resources to travel, and have left their jobs and taken their children out of school.
“It’s like any of us when we move, but here it’s moving to a new country, a new life,” he said, noting that with the court rulings freezing the executive order, Catholic agencies and other refugee resettlement groups have in recent weeks resumed welcoming them into the country.
Markham noted that “people caught in this chaotic process are living in uncertainty and fear. They’re already traumatized because of the situations they fled.”
Both the MRS and Catholic Charities officials also criticized the president’s plan to reduce the number of refugees entering the United States to 50,000 annually, from a planned 110,000.
“That’s going to put a big strain on our capacity to continue our programs,” said Markham, who said Catholic Charities has launched a fundraising campaign to help the agency continue its extensive outreach to refugees, which she said remains a key priority.
Moving forward, officials such as Atkinson hope the Trump administration will scrap the executive order and work with immigration experts and those involved in refugee resettlement to devise a humane policy.
Wilch said he hopes “refugees and refugee families don’t become a political football, that we focus on welcoming these vulnerable refugees and refugee families and helping them feel welcomed and safe in our communities.”
The MRS official added, “We hope to work with the administration to continue building a safe, strong and welcoming resettlement program.”
As it has been for the refugees who were poised finally to enter the United States in recent weeks, the president’s executive order and the court actions freezing it have also been an emotional roller coaster for parishes seeking to welcome refugees.
Members of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C. had been planning for more than a year to assist a Syrian refugee family in resettling in the United States. The president’s order initially caused the cancellation of the family’s travel plans, but now after the court’s action, the plane they will travel on is scheduled to touch down in this country next week.
“We’re thrilled, but also nervous,” said Kate Tromble, the pastoral associate for social justice at Holy Trinity Parish. She added, “This is the first positive news we’ve had since the executive order.”
A delegation of Holy Trinity parishioners plans to meet the family at the airport, and help escort them to a house that is furnished and has a pantry stocked with food. Girl Scouts at Holy Trinity School held a diaper drive for the family, which includes a mother, father and six children who are Muslim and have been living in Iraq for the past two years.
On Feb. 6, Holy Trinity schoolchildren and parishioners held prayer services to show solidarity for the family, and children marched through their school’s Georgetown neighborhood holding signs with messages like, “We can make the world a better place.”
Tromble said parishioners were moved by seeing photos of refugees, and by taking to heart Pope Francis’s call for parishes around the world to welcome refugee families.
“Pope Francis is talking to us, (saying) you can do this and welcome the stranger,” she said. “It’s important to remember we are a country of immigrants.”