Trump’s immigration policies force reduction of Episcopal Church’s refugee resettlement network

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Apr 4, 2017

Although she used to be in grade six, Ayesh, who fled to Turkey from the Idlib Governorate of Syria does not attend school. Photo: UNICEF/Shehzad Noorani

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries will reduce the size of its 31-member affiliate network by six in 2018 because of changing U.S. policy that will reduce the number of refugees to be resettled in this country annually by more than half.

The affiliates, and the Episcopal dioceses in which they are located, are:

  • Refugee One in Chicago, Illinois (Diocese of Chicago);
  • Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville (Diocese of Florida);
  • Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota in Fargo and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota in Grand Forks (Diocese of North Dakota);
  • Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord, New Hampshire (Diocese of New Hampshire);
  • Ascentria Care Alliance in Westfield, Massachusetts (Diocese of Western Massachusetts).

EMM will not resettle refugees through these affiliates for the federal fiscal year 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018).

The planned closings are a painful but strategically necessary move, the Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson, EMM’s director, told Episcopal News Service. Moreover, they come after two other recent decisions to shrink EMM’s footprint, one directly related to the government’s changing refugee policy and one not.

“It’s painful; it’s horrible, but we hope – we pray – that we have made the right decisions for the health of the overall network and for the well-being of the refugees,” he said. “That is our number one concern.”

Following President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration that reduce the number of refugees able to be annually resettled in the country by more than half, the U.S. Department of State has issued guidance to the resettlement agencies to plan for no more than 50,000 refugee admissions in the coming fiscal year. The most recent of Trump’s two orders is here.

Stevenson said EMM and the other eight resettlement agencies that work under U.S. federal contracts to resettle refugees “are looking at structuring ourselves to be the right size for fiscal year 2018.”

The other resettlement agencies are Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and World Relief. (By federal law, refugees may only enter the U.S. under the auspices of one of those agencies.)

“We’re also looking at how we structure ourselves to stay healthy during the remainder of this year because much of the funding that comes from the federal government is calculated on the number of refugees coming to the United States,” he said.

Thus, when refugees cannot enter the U.S., resettlement agencies such as EMM receive far less federal money than anticipated. That reduction also makes it harder to provide ongoing services to refugees already resettled in the U.S.

Administrators at all nine agencies have been forced to make choices that will preserve the integrity of the network of agencies and affiliates in a way that is the best for refugees.

“It’s important for us to have a system where refugees are resettled where it is safe, where it’s affordable, where opportunity is given to them to thrive as new Americans,” Stevenson said.

With those concerns in mind, he said, each agency has been making choices based on where it operates now, where it operates in partnership with other agencies and where, given the anticipated nationalities of future refugees, former refugees have formed communities that can support newcomers.

“We don’t want to leave a community completely in the lurch,” Stevenson said.

The Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson and the national staff of Episcopal Migration Ministries met for a retreat at the Episcopal Church Center in New York as EMM and the eight other resettlement agencies in the United States were facing cuts due to changing U.S. policy on refugee admissions. Photo: EMM via Facebook

An unsettling time for refugee resettlement

The past seven and a half weeks have been a difficult and unpredictable for the nine resettlement agencies.

On Jan. 27,  Trump’s initial executive order suspended the entry of refugees into the United States for at least 120 days. The order also said that when the administration lifts the ban, there would be further restrictions on potential refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Furthermore, Trump said that, after the ban ends, he would allow only 50,000 refugees into the United States instead of the anticipated 110,000 this fiscal year. By federal law, the president makes an annual determination of the maximum number of refugees that will be allowed to resettle in the United States. All nine agencies had geared up with people and offices to resettle the larger number of refugees.

U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle on Feb. 6 temporarily blocked Trump’s action, leaving the State Department’s refugee admissions program in limbo. Trump issued his second executive order March 6, removing Iraq from the list of seven countries and rewording his first order in an attempt to avoid new allegations that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s religious freedom guarantee. The new order maintains the reduction in the number of refugees who can enter the U.S. after that work resumes.

The March 6 order is on hold while federal district court judges consider challenges to it. On March 29, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii issued a longer-lasting hold on the order. Watson had earlier imposed a temporary restraining order. The ruling is in effect until Watson orders otherwise, including during an appeal, which the Trump administration filed the next day.

The government has also appealed the ruling of a federal judge in Maryland that blocked the order. And Robart, the federal district judge in Washington, has not yet ruled on challenges to the second order.

The term “refugee” has a specific legal meaning. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees designates a person as a “refugee” if they are fleeing persecution, war or violence. Those people apply for that designation and are regarded as distinct from immigrants. They earn refugee designation after UNHCR vets their application. Episcopal Migration Ministries resettles refugees who have received the U.N. designation, been referred by the U.N. to the United States and have gone through a U.S. vetting process.

The executive order’s impact on EMM’s bottom line is especially drastic because EMM is a unique ministry of the Episcopal Church, both structurally and fiscally. While not separately incorporated, as is Episcopal Relief & Development, EMM receives very little money from the church-wide budget, instead receiving 99.5 percent of its funding from the federal government. Its main office is housed at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

Stevenson has said that 90 percent of the contract money directly goes to resettling refugees. EMM retains about $2 million for administrative costs, including all national staff salaries. Any unused money goes back to the government.

The affiliates receive money via EMM from the federal contracts and thus face big budget cuts when no refugees enter the country. EMM’s network is a mixture of three types of affiliates. Two are essentially EMM branch offices. The rest are independent operations that work only with EMM or with EMM and Church World Service and/or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Affiliates are using cash reserves, fundraising and whatever support EMM can give them to pay their employees and cover leases and other operating expenses. The Church’s Executive Council agreed in February to give EMM $500,000 to help it through 2017. The agency itself recently announced a fundraising campaign to bridge the funding gap.

In fiscal year 2016, which ran from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016, EMM resettled 5,762 refugees to the United States from 35 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Afghanistan and Syria. Already this fiscal year, EMM welcomed 2,766 refugees and anticipated resettling 6,175 people until Trump signed his order Jan. 27. Overall, all nine agencies have already resettled approximately 38,000 refugees this fiscal year, Stevenson said.

Since the Trump administration’s policy shift, EMM has reduced its national core staff by 22 percent due to the reduced federal funding. It announced in late February that it would close its more than 30-year-old Miami office, not because of the Trump administration’s moves but because of changes made by former President Barack Obama to U.S. policy on Cuban migrants.

Reducing the affiliate network by six and closing the Miami office equals a 23 percent reduction in the network, Stevenson said. “We are hopeful that will be sufficient,” he added.

Some of the other nine resettlement agencies have already announced their decisions. World Relief said in mid-February that it would lay off more than 140 staff members and close offices in Boise, Idaho; Columbus, Ohio; Miami; Nashville, Tennessee, and Glen Burnie, Maryland.

Church World Service has begun a $1 million fundraising campaign.

The other reality, Stevenson said, is that the reduced number of refugees and the decisions the agencies have to make will hurt the economies in the affiliates’ cities. Landlords who rent to refugees, employers who hire them and the language teachers, medical personnel, school employees who help them integrate into U.S. society will lose money or jobs, Stevenson predicted.

“We’re making the best strategic decisions that we can every day based on the information we have in front of us,” he said. “So, given the information that we have now and the assumptions that we’re all working across all nine resettlement agencies, we believe that that adjustment in our network size will properly position us to be a healthy network for resettling refugees come the end of a suspension and into fiscal 2018.”

Meanwhile, Episcopal Church Director of Government Relations Rebecca Linder Blachly told ENS that her office would continue to help those in the administration who will decide if the ban can be lifted after 120 days “be confident that we have a good process in place” for resettling refugees.

The official press release concerning the reduction is here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (9)

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    I hope the Episcopal Migration Ministries will protest this cruel cutback. At 82 years of age I am in street demonstrations against unjust deportations. It feels like the sixties.

  2. Tim Reimer says:

    Thank you for making these drastic changes known to the church wide community. As we look at images of the most recent chemical attacks in Syria, it is hard to comprehend our government reducing the number of refugees rather than increasing them. I will be sharing these concerns on Sunday during coffee hour at my parish. I hope it in leads to our church becoming a loud strong voice in opposing these policies.

    1. Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

      Just remember in pre-Nazi Europe and America, no country wanted to take Jews. Nothing has changed. Assad did this to his own people and the United States had an opportunity to step up and put an end to it, but Obama did nothing, but talk big. His red line gave Russia the opening to get involved in Syria thus making it more difficult to fine a solution to the refugee problem.

      Safe Zones in Syria for Syrians will work better than relocating refugees here. They really do not want to leave their country, if a safe zone can be created for them. This could have been done prior to the Obama retreat from his red line talking point. Now it is more difficult to do.

      Refugees are only in countries that take them until it is safe for them to return to their home countries. This would only be a temporary solution, we need better options.

  3. The Rev. W. Gaye Brown says:

    I am writing in regard to the poster “What makes refugees stand out among immigrants?” which seems to me to pit refugees and immigrants against each other. Yes, there are differences in how they get to this country and what happens to them afterwards, but I suggest to you that each group seeks what we all want: a safe place to live, work and educational opportunities, freedom from prejudice and persecution a chance to prosper–to be the fullest of who God has made us to be. Using the fact that refugees are legal, fully documented, authorized to work, and pay taxes, etc. suggests that they are somehow better, more deserving, and contribute more (via taxes) than do those who are in this county illegally. Please reconsider the use of this poster and help us defuse people’s hostility toward those who simply want what our ancestors wanted when they made the trip to a better land.

    1. Mary Frances Schjonberg says:

      It was not ENS’ intention to pit refugees against immigrants. ENS used the poster as a way to note that EMM works with refugees and its ministry is thus effected by the changes in U.S. refugee policy. We have added a caption to the poster to clarify the worldwide legal distinctions accorded to refugees.

  4. Dr. Erna Lund says:

    Thank you Mary Frances for this report–and Thank you Rev.Fenton–“Ditto” on your response–But we cannot leave it at that otherwise another Trump Triumph!! I too am proactive as a longtime member of Women In Black(founded in Jerusalem in 1986 w/Israel&Palestinian women standing together against war&violence). Thus is it so disappointing that the report appears that many have “folded” under this Trump order… We here in Seattle (Mayor Ed Murray) have persistently held out as a Sanctuary City, and our Attorney General Bob Ferguson has challenged Trump on his illegal, unconstitutional orders on Muslims.
    Our national Episcopal Church is not what it use to be in the ’80- ’90s standing strong despite Conflicts in Middle East, and notably in our Diocese of Jerusalem. Yes, a time of renewal is here and in this Holy Easter season we must be the servants in the ministry our Dear Lord Jesus Christ… Children/families in Iraq,Syria,Gaza/Palestine,,Jordan… are all under seige crying out for Peace and security in their homelands–We must Stop the war-mongering of our government and Trump’s aggressive actions! Our Episcopal Church must be a Strong Voice w/Action for Justice for All!

  5. Sarah Rachel says:

    Am I the only one that believes in separation of Church and State? I am not a bigot, but why is everything politics? I feel the Church will lose more than gain congregants –

    1. Thomas Franklin says:

      Amen! Sarah.

  6. Jeff Zelem says:

    I see this post is old. Anyway, this is a moneymaker, pure and simple. I go to an Episcopal church. The Anglican church is dying and so it turns to the government to sustain it’s workers. Shock! Doing God’s work? Ha! Then why aren’t you bringing in Middle Eastern Christians who are persecuted? Why primarily Muslim? No, not possible that anybody getting in might want to harm us, no? A sham!

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