Leaders of Catholic agencies involved in serving refugees overseas and helping to resettle them in the United States strongly criticized President Donald Trump’s new executive order on refugees and echoed concerns they had raised over the president’s initial order, saying it potentially makes some of the world’s most desperate people even more vulnerable, as the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues to unfold.
The president’s March 6 “Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which is to take effect March 16, would suspend the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days, and would allow the entry of no more than 50,000 refugees into the country in fiscal year 2017.
The executive order would, for 90 days, restrict the entry of people from six predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – which the president said are countries of concern due to their ties to terrorism. The new executive order, which revokes and replaces one issued January 27 that had been blocked by court challenges, does not include a travel ban on people from Iraq who have visas to enter the United States.
“We’re still very concerned for the 120-day pause and going forward, reducing drastically the number of refugees we rescue as a country,” said Bill Canny, the executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He noted that the United States had earlier planned to allow 110,000 refugees into the country this year, and now that number has been reduced by more than one-half.
“There are just too many people left behind by this executive order,” Canny told Crux.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015 there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. Almost five million refugees came from Syria.
Of the 85,000 refugees resettled in the United States last year, Migration and Refugee Services, working with Catholic Charities and affiliated agencies, resettled 23,000 of those refugees.
In a statement, Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, who serves as chair of the Committee on Migration for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “The revised order still leaves many innocent lives at risk…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.”
Canny noted that halting the entry of refugees into the country for an extended period, and also sharply reducing the number of refugees allowed to come to the United States, means that 60,000 refugees who had been conditionally approved to enter the country now face an uncertain future after being in the pipeline for refugee resettlement in the United States.
“We’ve stripped 60,000 people of hope in the short term,” he said.
Many of those refugees have fled war, violence, terrorism and persecution, and lost their homes and jobs, Canny said, adding that now the refugees will continue to languish in camps or dangerous slum areas, where they face hunger and where children often lack educational opportunities.
Some critics have warned that the Trump administration’s approach to refugees and the restrictions on travel that many see as a “Muslim ban” could have the unintended consequence of serving as a recruiting tool for ISIS among desperate populations. In his executive order, Trump said that the measures are not meant to discriminate against any people or religions.
The United States, Canny said, needs to find a balance between its national security concerns and its humanitarian responsibilities, and the nation’s leaders and its people need to take an objective look at the plight of refugees.
“It’s in our national interest to harbor those who have been persecuted, to provide refuge for those who have lost everything, and to continue to be a beacon of light of humanitarian concern,” Canny said.
In coming months, Migration and Refugee Services will continue to work with Catholic Charities to support the refugees being resettled here, he said.
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also expressed profound concern over the president’s new executive order.
“Fundamentally, the revised order is no better for the human beings affected than was the first attempt,” she said in an email interview with Crux. “We (the United States) still have closed our doors tight for 120 days, leaving vulnerable people, especially women and children, suffering in refugee camps across the globe.”
She said many people don’t understand the distinction between immigrants coming to a country because they seek a better life, and refugees fleeing for their lives.
Catholic Charities USA has launched an $8 million campaign to support the work of local Catholic Charities agencies in caring for refugees.
When asked what’s next for refugees, and for Catholic Charities in the wake of the executive order, Markham said, “For the refugees affected by this order, it means four more months of suffering. For Catholic Charities, the reduction of government funding assistance means we will need to figure out how to continue to care for the 45,000 refugees who are already here and participating in our programs.”
The Catholic Charities USA president added, “One thing is certain: We will continue to care for these people in whatever way we can.”
Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, the senior legislative specialist for Catholic Relief Services, said she believes the new executive order, like the one it replaced, “fails to appropriately balance national security concerns with our moral obligation and national tradition to help those in need.”
In an email interview with Crux, she said now is not the time for the United States to cut its refugee resettlement in half. “Since World War II, the United States has led the world in responding to refugees’ needs; if we turn our backs now, the rest of the world will feel that it can too,” she said.
Suspending the resettlement of refugees for 120 days “will have a real impact of the lives of tens of thousands of people,” she said. “In addition to those fleeing war in the Middle East, children fleeing gangs in Central America will be left without recourse for four months.”
Catholic Relief Services, which was founded during World War II to assist refugees in Europe, continues that mission in 101 countries as the U.S. Catholic Church’s international humanitarian relief agency.
Gerschutz-Bell said the agency will continue to provide assistance to refugees overseas, and advocate with Capitol Hill lawmakers and White House officials to encourage them to increase refugee resettlement.
Don Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies – a New York-based think tank founded in 1964 by the Missionaries of St. Charles – said the new executive order “is a do-over, but not significantly different” than the order it replaced.
“The suspension of the refugee program is unnecessary and disastrous, both for the refugees stranded in dangerous situations, and for the networks of church agencies and volunteers poised to resettle refugees,” Kerwin said.
Trump’s new executive order states that it is designed “to protect the nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”
In the order, the president noted that, “The Attorney General has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The order also pointed out that the Article II of the U.S. Constitution gives the president broad authority to restrict “the entry of any aliens or class of aliens into the United States” whose arrival might be detrimental to the country’s interests.
“I think it’s extraordinarily important to secure the United States and to do everything that’s sensible, reasonable and legal to prevent the admissions of persons who might harm the country or have bad intentions. This (executive order) is not that situation,” said Kerwin, who said the measure wrongly categorizes refugees as terrorists.
Kerwin said the refugee resettlement program “is the most secure admissions program to the U.S., by far,” with refugees undergoing up to two years of vetting by intelligence agencies, the FBI, the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and United Nations’ agencies.
Jeanne M. Atkinson, the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., said the figure for the number of refugees being investigated for links to terrorism might be misleading, because those figures don’t indicate the number of people charged or found guilty of such crimes.
She noted that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, thousands of people were investigated for links to terrorism.
The assumption seemingly animating the executive order, that refugees entering the country are more prone to terrorism and have committed those acts here, “is not based on fact,” Atkinson said, saying the isolated examples pointed to by the order, in her view, “are very purposefully painting the picture of (refugee) people as dangerous.”
CLINIC, founded in 1988, 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.
Atkinson expects that legal challenges will be made against the new executive order, just as they were for the order it replaced. “There’s a very strong argument that this is anti-Muslim and unconstitutional,” she said.
U.S. Catholic agencies serving refugees and immigrants are continuing their work of “welcoming the stranger,” which Atkinson noted is a Gospel imperative and a hallmark of Catholic teaching. “It’s in our DNA,” she said.