Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday morning with Gov. Phil Bryant, asking Mississippi to keep sponsoring a 34-year-old program that resettles children with legal refugee status.

The Bryant administration has told the Department of Health and Human Services it’s declining to accept any new children into the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program. Spokeswoman Nicole Webb said recently that Bryant fears President Barack Obama will use the program to send children who immigrated illegally.

“All of a sudden, this program, where we all play by the rules, could be commandeered and used to bring in children who are here illegally,” Webb said.

Webb said Mississippi would allow the 27 children now enrolled to remain until they turn 21.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Jackson runs the program under sponsorship of the state Department of Human Services.

Monsignor Elvin Sunds, deputy to Catholic Bishop Joseph Kopacz, said he, United Methodist Bishop James Swanson Sr., outgoing Episcopal Bishop Duncan Gray III and soon-to-be Episcopal Bishop Brian Seage will ask Bryant to change his mind. The governor is Methodist.

Sunds said Wednesday that the Catholic Church is following biblical commands to welcome strangers in what’s sometimes called the Hospitality State.

“We are doing it because it’s our Christian duty,” he said.

Catholic Charities Executive Director Greg Patin downplayed the possibility that the program, which operates in 13 states, could resettle children who immigrate illegally.

“I understand that’s their concern,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s a legal way that could be done. The unaccompanied minors at the border are not eligible for unaccompanied refugee minor status.”

Among those brought to Mississippi by the program is Bul Mabil, a Sudanese refugee who now works for the state Department of Transportation. Mabil was recently named a Rotary Peace Fellow and is currently in England studying conflict resolution.

Bryant is a longtime critic of illegal immigration, but has usually been silent on legal immigration.

In a July 18 letter to Obama, Bryant said he would seek to prevent the federal government from housing unaccompanied immigrant children without legal status arrested near the Mexican border in Mississippi.

Through July 31, more than 200 of the 37,000 unaccompanied children were sent to stay with sponsors in Mississippi while awaiting deportation hearings.

The federal government pays the entire $1.7 million annual cost of Mississippi’s refugee minor program. Patin said that pays for about 30 employees, including case managers, tutors and therapists, as well as a group home and stipends for foster parents.

Patin said that if Mississippi withdraws sponsorship, the diocese could seek direct federal grants. However, he said that funding is less dependable than a state-sponsored program.

Patin said he believes the federal government would let Mississippi wind down its program over time, but warned Catholic Charities would have to winnow its staff.

“To me, it really jeopardizes the quality of services our kids would get,” he said.