Episcopal leaders condemn Trump administration’s moves to ‘further dismantle’ refugee program

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 27, 2019
Syrian refugee

Syrian refugee Ahmad al Aboud and his family members, on their way to be resettled in the United States as part of a refugee admissions program, walk to board their plane in Amman, Jordan, in 2016. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church condemned the Trump administration’s decision, announced Sept. 26, to further slash the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States to a historic low of just 18,000 – a move that threatens to cripple the ability of Episcopal Migration Ministries and other agencies to maintain the United States’ decades-old policy of welcoming those in need from around the world.

“There are millions of displaced persons around the world. The United States has a solemn obligation to do its part to aid this problem by showing generosity to refugees. Security and compassion are not mutually exclusive,” said the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church.

Robertson’s comment was issued Sept. 27 as part of an Episcopal Church statement on the issue that invoked Jesus’ command to “welcome the stranger” and Episcopalians’ baptismal commitment to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Reducing the cap on refugees – by nearly half from 30,000 in the current fiscal year, far below the 95,000 average over the program’s 40 years – will “further dismantle the refugee resettlement program,” the church said. “Those fleeing persecution have a particular claim on our attention and concern as they seek a life of dignity and peace in the face of oppression.”

In the statement, church leaders also “strongly condemn the decision to allow states and localities to reject refugees.” On the same day that his administration announced it was slashing the resettlement program, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that directed the federal government to “resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the state and local governments have consented to receive refugees.”

The changes to the refugee resettlement program are the latest developments in the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to limit and reduce both legal and illegal immigration into the United States, a policy platform that was a central part of his 2016 campaign.

It remains to be seen what long-term effects these changes will have on the nine agencies, including EMM, that have contracts with the U.S. State Department to facilitate the government’s resettlement program at the local level. The Trump administration still hasn’t said whether all or some of those agencies’ contracts will be renewed in the coming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Last year, the agencies did not learn all their contracts had been renewed until the end of November, nearly two months after the start of the fiscal year.

The refugee resettlement ceiling, set by the president’s administration, is the maximum number of refugees who will be welcomed into the country for the year, though the actual number could be even lower. The Trump administration’s decision to reduce the ceiling had been hinted at for months, with reports over the summer suggesting that administration officials were considering cutting the number to zero.

The U.S. Department of Defense, in the past, has defended the resettlement program, citing the example of Iraqi refugees who were resettled in the United States after assisting the American military in Iraq.

For most of the past two decades, the cap has remained between 70,000 and 90,000. Under President Barack Obama, with the Syrian refugee crisis prominent in headlines, it was raised as high as 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year.

Douglas Sparks and Todd Young

Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks, right, meets Sept. 24 with Indiana Sen. Todd Young on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo: Office of Government Relations, via Twitter

As the cap has been steadily reduced under Trump, EMM’s resettlement affiliates have dwindled from 31 in 26 dioceses to just 13 affiliates in 11 dioceses. The ongoing uncertainty poses additional challenges for EMM and the other eight agencies, which include Church World Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“This decision will substantially hamper the vital work of Episcopal Migration Ministries to show the love of Christ to some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” said Robertson, who just this week had joined five Episcopal bishops in meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in support of EMM and the refugee resettlement program.

“I’m really disappointed by the actions of those that have control over this decision,” West Virginia Bishop Mike Klusmeyer, one of those five bishops, told Episcopal News Service on Sept. 27. “This will dismantle many of the agencies around the country … and will cause great harm.”

Church World Service warned that the Trump administration’s decision “effectively dismantles the U.S. resettlement program.” It also criticized Trump’s executive order, calling it a “refugee ban.”

“With one final blow, the Trump administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty’s torch and ended our nation’s legacy of compassion and welcome,” Church World Service President John McCullough said in a written statement. “The darkness of this day will extend for years, if not decades, to come.”

The purpose of the United States’ refugee resettlement program has been to join other nations around the world in helping to alleviate the plight of refugees fleeing war, persecution and other hardships in their home countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, estimates there are nearly 26 million such refugees worldwide who are unable to return to their homes.

About 300,000 refugees are now living in the United States, according to UNHCR. This year, more than half of the new arrivals were refugees from Africa, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Refugees from Afghanistan, Burma and Ukraine also make up a large portion of this year’s resettlement total.

“Communities wholeheartedly value the opportunity to welcome refugees,” The Episcopal Church said in its statement on the administration’s actions. “Allowing states and localities to ban resettlement robs them of the myriad of benefits refugees bring wherever they go. It sends the wrong message to turn our backs on refugees who could enrich, strengthen, and revitalize our cities and towns.”

The church’s Office of Government Relations, which advocates on behalf of the church in Washington, issued an action alert asking members of its Episcopal Public Policy Network to let lawmakers know they support welcoming refugees.

Episcopalians also are encouraged to support EMM directly by making a donation here.

“We urge Congress, and all people of goodwill, to make their voices heard in opposition to this decision,” the church’s Sept. 27 statement said. “Since its founding as a nation the United States has stood as a beacon of hope for countless endangered members of God’s family. There is still room at the table for more of these precious children of God.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.