Christian aid groups grapple with refugee ban fallout
Immigration | President Trump’s executive order leaves new arrivals and many Christians in the lurch
by Mindy Belz
Posted 1/30/17, 12:26 pm
Debi Clifton and her team at Grace Community Church were in “a whirlwind of activity” last Thursday, she said, even before President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigrant visas sent the rest of the country into turmoil.
That day, Refugee Focus, part of Lutheran Social Services, contacted Clifton to say her church in Tempe, Ariz., had its first family: a Congolese mother of seven small children and two grown children, expected to arrive at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in just one week.
Clifton and her team went to work, and 24 hours later managed to locate affordable housing, collect furnishings and groceries, and plan transportation for the family of 10. They were in the process of putting down a security deposit on an apartment when they learned about Trump’s order suspending refugees from entering the United States for 120 days and barring entry for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. The seven countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. The order bars all Syrian nationals indefinitely.
Other churches and volunteer organizations across the country were thrown into similar uncertainty over the weekend as they awaited the arrival of hundreds of refugees, most of them already in a screening process for two to three years. But the confusion was nothing like the fear and rejection awaiting asylum-seekers who had already boarded planes when the order went into effect.
Among the first to be detained under the president’s order was Hameed Khalid Darweesh, 53, an Iraqi who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army starting with the 2003 invasion. Darweesh was taken into custody at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday night, even though the trained electrical engineer and father of three had worked for the U.S. government and American contractors for 10 years, and carried documents showing he had been granted a special immigrant visa (SIV) on Jan. 20.
Customs and Border Protection officers took other arrivals into custody as well, including a Baghdad accountant who worked for the U.S. military and lost family members to the insurgency, whose wife and son had already resettled in Texas.
The two Iraqis were released by Saturday afternoon after filing writs of habeas corpus, but in the first day of the order, Department of Homeland Security officers detained more than 375 people en route to the United States. As U.S. citizens watched the confusion unfold—and travelers saw academics, the elderly, and others taken into custody—protests ignited spontaneously at major airports, outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. By late Saturday, a federal judge in New York issued an injunction blocking deportation of those detained at airports, saying they or family members in their home countries could face “irreparable injuries.” Judges in Boston, Seattle, and Alexandria, Va., soon issued similar stays.
With questions swirling over the implications of the immediate order, Trump stood by the sweeping changes.
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” he wrote in a Facebook post Sunday night. “This is not about religion—this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
During the presidential campaign in late 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. But by mid-2016 he had adopted a more nuanced approach, calling instead for suspending immigration from regions that have been a major source for terrorists. His campaign pledge gained support following the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., by a couple pledging allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS). The mass shooting killed 14 people. Late last year, ISIS also claimed an attack at Ohio State University involving a Somali man who arrived with his family as a refugee in 2014. The attack injured dozens but resulted in no deaths.
Trump claims persecuted Christians would be given priority under the order, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody in an interview Friday, “We are going to help them. … They’ve been horribly treated.”
But the wording of the executive order gives no clear preference to Christians, and no clear bar to Muslims. It does clearly ban all Syrian nationals, which would include about 400,000 Christians who have been forced from their homes during the Syrian civil war, many of them threatened with torture and death by ISIS.
Critics also questioned the omission of Saudi Arabia, a leading base for Islamic terrorists, and Nigeria, where more than 15,000 people have died at the hands of ISIS affiliate Boko Haram. Neither country is included in the 90-day travel ban.
The order calls on officials “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”
Refugee resettlement officers warned lawyers and judges will read the order as written and in ways perhaps different than the White House intended.
Christians in the Middle East do qualify as religious minorities, but in countries where they face severest persecution (Iran, Iraq, and Syria), all immigrant visa-holders and refugees are subject to the 90-day travel ban. In some countries outside the seven totally blocked, Christians facing threats and persecution are actually in the majority. The largest group of refugees resettled in the United States in 2016 were Christians from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Along with Christians granted asylum from Burma (also known as Myanmar), they face severe persecution, but not from Muslim majorities.
“We did not anticipate a total shutdown,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies working with the State Department. “We did not anticipate the Burmese and Congolese would be kept out.”
The State Department has jurisdiction over refugee admissions and contracts with the private resettlement agencies, while the Department of Homeland Security controls the border. Secretary of State–designate Rex Tillerson awaits a confirmation vote in Congress. Gen. John F. Kelly, the new secretary of homeland security, received a White House briefing on the executive order as aides watched Trump signing it on television. The White House did not ask Kelly’s department for a legal review of the order, according to a New York Times report.
Soerens said resettlement agencies, too, received no advance word of the executive order or State Department guidance on how to prepare for the changes. He learned about it when the Los Angeles Times leaked an early draft a week ago.
Soerens also believes the methodology of the executive order actually will lower the number of Christian refugees allowed into the United States. Section 5(d) of the order caps refugee entries for fiscal year 2017 at 50,000. As of Friday, 32,125 refugees already have been admitted in this fiscal year, including 13,892 (about 43 percent) Christians. If all the remaining 17,875 or so admitted are Christians (which seems unlikely), the total number would be about 6,000 fewer than the Christian refugees granted asylum in fiscal year 2016.
“For a lot of reasons, we don’t think this order will help protect persecuted Christians, and our Christian faith compels us to help others as well,” Soerens said.
While the executive order grants exceptions to the 120-day moratorium for certain approved religious minorities, State Department officials informed World Relief on Sunday they had not received any instructions allowing them to make those exceptions.
In Philadelphia on Saturday, U.S. officials detained a Syrian Christian family of six with immigrant visas and green cards—then sent them back to Qatar.
“The 90-day ban could imperil the life of this family and many others,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
As it is, “everything seems to have stopped,” Sorens pointed out, including all overseas processing of refugee applicants. Even when it restarts, no one is sure what the new procedures will be, and security protocols likely will create a backlog, while those already granted refugee status but not yet here most likely will be returned for lengthy screenings.
Refugee resettlement in the United States historically has depended on a partnership with key religious groups. Of nine resettlement agencies contracting with the State Department, four are Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish.
In that tradition—and eyeing a worldwide refugee crisis that has topped 65 million—Clifton, the director of global outreach at Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz., began last summer to form a team of volunteers to sponsor an incoming refugee family. Churches are a prominent reception center for newly arrived refugees, working with resettlement agencies to help arrivals find housing, navigate a new city, learn English, and enroll their children in schools.
Grace, a congregation of about 1,500, had decades ago assisted Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, but with a new refugee crisis, it wanted to help again. The Congolese were the church’s first family to sponsor.
On Monday morning, Clifton received word from Lutheran Social Services: “All arriving refugee cases have been canceled.”
“Our family will not be coming,” Clifton told me.