Despite objections by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has decided to help resettle a Syrian refugee family. The family — parents and two children — arrived in Indianapolis Monday night, where the local Catholic Charities agency will assist them.
Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin met with Pence for about an hour at the Indiana statehouse last week to discuss the governor’s concerns, which centered on what he said was the Obama administration’s failure to adequately explain its vetting process for Syrian refugees.
Pence has said he is not sure that Syrian refugees are adequately vetted by the federal government, a two-year process during which the refugees must provide detailed biographical information and undergo retina scans and fingerprinting that are compared to federal and international databases, are interviewed multiple times, are screened by four government security agencies, must provide proof that they cannot return to their home in Syria, undergo medical screening, and take cultural orientation classes, among other procedures.
At that meeting, Pence asked Tobin to turn away the family. But Tobin rejected the request.
“I thank Governor Pence for meeting with me last Wednesday, when I was able to explain in some detail the plight of this family as well as the role of the Archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services program in welcoming them to Indianapolis, where the family already has some relatives,” Tobin said in a statement released Tuesday.
Tobin said he “listened to the governor’s concerns regarding security” and “prayerfully considered his request” not to resettle the family in Indiana, but ultimately moved forward. The archdiocese consulted with other US Catholic officials before making its decision.
“I informed the Governor prior to the family’s arrival that I had asked the staff of Catholic Charities to receive this husband, wife and their two small children as planned,” Tobin said.
Archdiocese spokesman Greg Otolski said the Church’s charity wing has 40 years of experience resettling refugees and knows what it is doing.
Pence’s office responded quickly, saying in a statement that while the governor “holds Catholic Charities in the highest regard,” he nonetheless “respectfully disagrees with their decision to place a Syrian refugee family in Indiana at this time.”
The state of Indiana will continue to withhold assistance to Syrian refugee families, “until the federal government takes action to address the concerns raised about this program,” the statement said.
However, an aide said Pence wants residents of the state to welcome the refugee family, despite his objections. And Pence denounced calls by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump to stop all Muslims from entering the United States, saying on Twitter that such sentiments were “offensive.”
Last month, Pence ordered state agencies to stop helping Syrian refugees, citing fears that potential terrorists could enter the country via the two-year resettlement program.
Tobin dismissed those concerns Tuesday, pointing to the federal background checks the family has undergone for more than two years.
“We welcome this family during Advent, a time when the Christian community asks God to renew our hope and recognize God’s saving power among us,” he said.
A spokesman for the archdiocese said the timing of the announcement, which coincides with Pope Francis launching the jubilee year of mercy in Rome, was “just a coincidence.”
“This resettlement has been in the works on our end for months,” said Greg Otolski. “We waited to announce the arrival today because we wanted to get the family here and settled without any extra attention.”
Responding to a question about Pence’s order that blocks state funding to help resettle Syrian refugees, Otoloski said, “the family is entitled to the same benefits any refugees arriving in Indiana receive. We hope that the state will not single them out.”
Regardless, he continued, “We have received many offers of support for this family and we will do everything necessary to see that they are taken care of.”
Some observers have said that governors telling religious agencies not to resettle Syrian refugees is a violation of religious freedom, but Otolski said in an interview last week that the archbishop doesn’t see it like that.
“He’s never framed it as that,” he said. “This is just part of what the Catholic Church has done for a long, long time: helping refugees fleeing violence and persecution around the world.”
Otolski said it was “highly unusual” for Tobin to be as involved as he was in decisions like this, noting that the local Catholic Charities agency has settled close to 20,000 refugees and migrants over the past four decades.
About 1,500 Syrian refugees have settled in the United States since 2011, when fighting broke out in Syria, killing more than 250,000 people and displacing millions more. Catholic-affiliated agencies comprise the largest refugee resettlement organization in the United States, relying on federal and state grants, as well as private donations, to carry out its work.
Tobin said Tuesday that helping to resettle refugees “is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians, and we will continue this life-saving tradition.”