Executive order throws Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program into doubt
DETROIT — Since President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries on Jan. 27, Catholic leaders across the country have spoken out over the legal and ethical implications, especially for refugees escaping war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria.
The day after the order was issued, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron wrote a letter to the chair of the Imams Council of Michigan, expressing his support for immigrants and refugees.
“Now that a federal government restriction has been placed upon refugees from mainly Muslim countries, I want to bring to your attention, and affirm my solidarity with, a Jan. 27 statement made in Washington, D.C., by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stating strong disagreement with the executive order,” Archbishop Vigneron’s letter said.
The Catholic Church in southeast Michigan is committed to assisting the vulnerable and persecuted who are seeking refuge in the United States, regardless of religion, the archbishop’s letter continued.
“As I said in my statement last month, ‘Our local community in Metro Detroit is much richer for the contributions of our brothers and sisters from Mexico and El Salvador, from India and Pakistan, from Iraq and Syria, from China and Korea, from Ukraine and Poland, from Cameroon and Nigeria,” the archbishop wrote.
Trump’s order suspends refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, with the exception of Syrian refugees, who are suspended indefinitely. The order also bars citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days. Fifty-nine percent of refugees who arrived in Michigan in 2016 came from Iraq and Syria, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The executive order will have a monumental impact on Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services, which relocated 730 refugees in Metro Detroit during fiscal year 2016, according to Bill Blaul, director of institutional advancement for CCSEM. This fiscal year, which began in October, Catholic Charities is projected to resettle 283 refugees in southeast Michigan.
Refugee resettlement is done through the U.S. State Department, which works with agencies, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to aid in resettlement efforts such as signing up for social services, enrolling students in local schools and adults in job training programs and preparing refugees in become self-sufficient members in their new country.
In a letter to The Michigan Catholic, Blaul noted that of CCSEM’s $9 million budget in fiscal year 2015-16, $1.36 million has been dedicated to refugee resettlement services. The flow of refugees, and the money from the federal government to support the program, has stopped with the issue of the executive order.
Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s refugee resettlement program is now staffed by 10 employees, but those positions are threatened with the executive order.
“The ban means all refugee resettlement has stopped for the next four months,” said David Bartek, chief operating officer and director of CCSEM’s Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services. “We get money from the federal government and the State department. We get ‘X’ amount of dollars for direct assistance to the refugees and money from administration and staff. The problem is, if we don’t have refugees, we don’t have revenue. The challenge is how do we maintain staff so when refugees come back in, we can resettle them as soon as possible?”
Bartek said Catholic Charities is working on reassigning staff to other positions while the refugee ban is in place, but admits that’s a temporary solution.
“For every single staff member we have in the refugee resettlement program, this is their livelihood; we can’t just lay them off and expect to pick them up four months later,” Bartek said. “We’re trying to maintain the staff, keeping them here in another capacity to maintain that level of staffing once the resettlement program starts again.”
Bartek acknowledges the national security concerns, but notes refugees are already vetted by multiple organizations both abroad and in the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, refugees begin their journey to a safe-haven country by applying for refugee status with the U.N. Refugee Agency, where identification documents and biographic information are collected and personal interviews are conducted.
Those who clear the checks are processed to a federally funded resettlement support center, which collects identifying documents, creates an applicant file and collects information for biographic security checks.
Refugees are then vetted by members of the United States intelligence and security community, before being sent to the Department of Homeland Security for a round of interviews. More biometric checks are conducted, so refugees’ biometric details are in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s database and they clear the DHS’s biometric database watch list and the U.S. Department of Defense’s biometric database.
After a medical check, the refugees are referred to a non-government organization, such as the U.S. Bishops, who in turn refers them to a group such as Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.
“We have two different types of refugees, those with U.S. ties who have sponsors, be them relatives or friends, or free cases, families who are coming to the U.S. with no one in the U.S.,” said Atheel Zora of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. “For the 90 days from when they arrive at Metro Airport, we are authorized to make sure they are independent. They receive cash assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services, food stamps, Medicare, those above 65 can apply for Social Security income.”
Zora said Catholic Charities also enrolls refugees in English classes, students in local schools — a requirement to receive federal assistance — and adults are sent to job-training classes.
“The goal is to have families self-sufficient within 90 days, with core services we have already applied for, including cash assistance, food assistance, Social Security, Medicaid, and job-training programs that lead to employment,” Zora said.
Zora added Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan still checks in on refugees after 90 days, making sure they receive further assistance if needed.
Zora said it’s a real mix of the ethnic, religious and familial makeup of families — Iraqi Chaldean with six children, Syrian Muslims with 11 children — all begrudgingly leaving their home countries to find safety in the United States.
“Usually, we try to place refugees in safe areas within the community, where they’ll be in contact with neighbors in the area and where they can go grocery shopping,” Zora said. “Mostly, we resettle refugees in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Christians tend to be resettled in Oakland and Macomb counties, where there are large Chaldean populations, versus Muslims who are resettled in Wayne County. But those are just general rules, there are exceptions.”
Despite the executive order, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan still projects to resettled 11 refugees already in the U.S. this February, but the program’s future remains in doubt.
“Beyond 90 days, it will be exceptionally problematic for CCSEM to continue to operate a cohesive and flexible Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services infrastructure,” Blaul wrote in a statement. “To maintain our Immigration and Refugee Resettlement infrastructure, CCSEM is contacting organizations and individuals who have previously supported our immigration and refugee resettlement services for additional and continued financial support.”