Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin is expected to decide within the next few days if the local Catholic Charities agency will move ahead with plans to resettle a Syrian family in Indiana, over objections from Gov. Mike Pence.
Tobin promised Pence at an hourlong State House meeting Wednesday, during which the governor asked the archbishop not to resettle the family amid security concerns, that he would not discuss his plans with the media. Instead, the archbishop plans to call the governor personally with his decision, an archdiocesan spokesman said.
Some observers have said that governors telling religious agencies not to resettle Syrian refugees is a violation of religious freedom, but Tobin’s spokesman said the archbishop doesn’t see it like that.
“He’s never framed it as that,” said Greg Otoloski. “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 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.
The family – a mother, father, and two young children – is currently living in Jordan, having fled their home in Syria close to three years ago. Otolski said they have been through close to two years’ worth of background checks, and he downplayed notions that they would be any kind of security risk.
“Regardless of religious background and ethnic background, we have an obligation to resettle people who need help,” he said.
When Catholic Charities is responsible for resettling families, the agency provides housing, job training, English classes, medical care, and assistance navigating life in a new country.
But Pence has blocked state agencies from providing any help to Syrian refugees, which could affect Tobin’s decision. 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.
The situation is not unique to Indiana.
With as many as 31 governors saying Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states, religious agencies that resettle families are locking horns with state governments.
Catholic-affiliated agencies comprise the largest refugee resettlement organization in the United States, and although it contracts with the federal government, it also relies on state funding to carry out its work. So even though governors lack the legal authority to block refugees from resettling in their states, they can cut off state funding, which could render the process too difficult.
In Kansas, for example, clergy are protesting a Nov. 16 directive of Gov. Sam Brownback saying no state agency or charity receiving funds from the state, which include the local Catholic Charities agency, could assist with resettling Syrian refugees. They say the order restricts their religious liberty.
Catholic bishops in that state released a statement last month decrying Brownback’s decision.
“We do not in any way wish to deny the seriousness of the threat of terrorism or ISIS’s determination to attack America,” the statement says. “But given the scale of human suffering in Syria and the security measures in place to scrutinize refugees, we believe that resettlement should continue.”
“We cannot allow fear to harden our hearts,” it continued.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar order last month, and the state is suing Catholic Charities of Dallas to block them from hosting a Syrian family currently staying in New York.
But the Catholic Charities agency of San Antonio announced this week that it would move ahead with plans to resettle up to 500 Syrians over Abbott’s objections.
“We want to work with the governor. We have shown we have not broken any laws,” J. Antonio Fernandez, head of the local Catholic Charities agency, told the San Antonio Express News.
“We are not here to judge people coming from Syria; we’re here to help all refugees coming from every single country,” he continued.
Fernandez pointed out that his agency, like others across the country, partners with the federal government, which has given the green light to resettle up to 10,000 Syrians. But local Catholic Charities agencies often rely on state grants to provide services, and the refugees themselves would normally be eligible for state assistance.
If that assistance is cut off – as it is in Texas, Kansas, and Indiana – there may be too much financial pressure on local agencies to move forward with resettlements.
“If Catholic Charities does get families that are Syrians, without those families having access to food stamps and some of the other assistance that’s funneled through the states, there’s going to be a higher burden on [Catholic Charities] to come up with money to help those families make ends meet,” Erica B. Schommer, a professor of law at St. Mary’s University, told the Express News.
Many governors have cited security concerns, saying they distrust federal procedures meant to screen out potential terrorists. But the Obama administration has rejected those fears, pointing out that refugees from Syria are subject to intense background checks and security measures that often take years to complete. 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.