WASHINGTON — Last week, as the Paris terror attacks provoked a backlash against plans to resettle 85,000 Syrian refugees in the United States by next October, the U.S. bishops urged Americans not to “scapegoat” people fleeing terrorism and wartime conflict.

“I am disturbed … by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration, in a Nov. 17 statement.

“It can take up to two years for a refugee to pass through the whole vetting process. We can look at strengthening the already-stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need.”

Bishop Elizondo’s response marked the U.S. bishops’ concern over the heightened political pushback to President Obama’s plan to sharply increase the number of Syrian refugees coming into the country. But it also reflected Church leaders’ firm commitment to refugee outreach through their Office of Migration and Refugee Services, which directs the largest U.S. nonprofit resettlement network in this country.

“We shouldn’t allow our fears to cloud our better judgment. What happened in Paris was a terrible tragedy, but it is still not clear that any Syrian refugee was responsible,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a leading voice in the Catholic Church on refugee and immigration issues, told the Register.

Like other Catholic leaders, Archbishop Wenski acknowledged the need for stepped-up security, but he questioned whether Syrian refugees should be the focus of concern.

“Syrian refugees are fleeing from terrorism. They are victims of it; they are not inflicting it.”

Responding to news reports that suggested one of the militants carrying out the Paris terror attacks had posed as a Syrian refugee, Archbishop Wenski said, “It is still not clear whether the evidence suggesting the suspect was a refugee may have been a ‘plant’ to provoke the reaction we are seeing.”

However, ISIS has specifically stated that it intends to infiltrate the flood of migrants from the Middle East seeking a better life in Europe, and this September, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said Western governments feared this scenario.

“We don’t obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees,” said Clapper at a conference, where he also noted that the U.S. government had a “pretty aggressive” security-clearance system. 


High Stakes

Archbishop Wenski  emphasized that the terrorists in Paris were French or Belgian citizens who could easily come to the U.S. on a tourist visa. Further, he warned that the suspension of the resettlement program could carry unintended consequences, including the possibility that refugees would be forced to remain in the region and die at the hands of the Islamic State.

“In 1939, a cruise ship from Europe, [SS St. Louis] carried Jewish refugees to our shores. They were denied entry into Cuba, .. and in Miami.”

“They were sent back to France and many were Jews who were exterminated in Holocaust,” he said, noting that the story was popularized in the film Voyage of the Damned.

One excuse used to turn the ship’s passengers away, he noted, was the fear that the group “might be infiltrated with Nazi spies.”

Thus Archbishop Wenski underscored the high stakes involved in the nation’s debate on Syrian refugees. But his remarks also mark the need for the USCCB and Catholic Charities affiliates to step up their engagement with skeptical U.S. lawmakers, governors and even the faithful to address security issues.

At the same time, the bishops must clarify the boundaries of the Church’s own role in a resettlement effort that has become entangled in partisan politics.


Church Agencies’ Limited Role

Last week, for example, a Catholic Charities affiliate in Louisiana drew public scrutiny after a Syrian refugee it had resettled in Baton Rouge went “missing,” and the Church agency said it had lost track of the man.

“We receive them, we welcome them into our community and help them resettle,” Chad Aguillard, the executive director of Catholic Charities in New Orleans, told a local media outlet, in a reference to the agency’s focus on resettlement services, not security oversight.

The missing refugee quickly surfaced in Washington, where his relatives reportedly live, and experts in the field note that refugees frequently leave their initial destinations to find better jobs or tap into a more established community network. But the expected arrival of more Syrian refugees in Louisiana became an issue in the state’s 2015 gubernatorial election, as Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order to halt the resettlement effort.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has stood its ground and echoed the U.S. bishops’ commitment to serving vulnerable people in desperate need. Still, it has also acknowledged legitimate security worries.

“In light of recent events, we take this opportunity to not only reiterate our commitment to the Gospel, but also our commitment to the safety of our own families and communities,” read a Nov. 16 statement released by the New Orleans Archdiocese and its Catholic Charities affiliate.

“To date, our involvement with Syrian refugee families has been minimal, and we will prayerfully await direction and guidance from the State Department, Homeland Security and others as we work into the future.”


Michigan Program Suspended

The political furor in Louisiana has surfaced in many other U.S. states, including Michigan. There, the Detroit metro area is home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the nation, including 150,000 Chaldean Christians. Gov. Rick Snyder has suspended the resettlement program as he reviews security concerns.

Jeralda Hattar, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities in Detroit, joined a group of refugee agency officials and advocates that met with Snyder’s advisers to urge a prompt resolution to the program’s suspension.

“We were told the governor had several phone calls with federal agencies that conduct security clearances. He had been reassured that there had been a strong security review but is waiting for that in writing,” Hattar told the Register.

For Hattar, the sense of urgency is inspired by the harrowing stories of the refugees she helps to resettle, including a young Syrian couple with a 2-year-old boy she met this year. They were lucky to be alive, but could not forget the tragedy of war: The wife had lost her sister and father on the same day, after their house was hit by a bomb.

However, the anxiety that led Snyder to suspend a resettlement program he has strongly supported will not be easily diffused as the nation reacts to the Islamic State’s stepped-up terror campaign in the West.


The Government’s Screening Process

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program describes the process of selecting and vetting refugees as “an interagency effort involving a number of governmental and non-governmental partners both overseas and in the United States.

“Refugee applicants are subject to the highest degree of security screening and background checks for any category of traveler to the United States.”

According to data published by the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, of the 2,184 Syrian refugees who have been admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, 96% are Muslims and 2.4% are Christians.

The fresh controversy that now accompanies the resettlement effort poses a challenge to the USCCB Office of Migration Services, which has put resources into advocating for refugees and helping them make a successful transition to American life.

Bill Canny, the executive director of the USCCB Office of Migration Services, told the Register that this office has managed the cases of 376 Syrian refugees since 2012, with 82 of those being this fiscal year.

Annually, Canny’s office oversees more than 20% of resettlement cases for all refugees arriving in the country, and he noted that the ability of Catholic Charities affiliates to leverage Church-affiliated health-care services makes the bishops’ network especially “versatile.”

“There are special cases that some entities can’t take for one reason or another, like someone with a heart condition,” said Canny.


USCCB and Catholic Charities’ Role

Before successful candidates arrive at a U.S. airport, the federal government works with resettlement agencies to allocate new cases and identify which organization will shepherd an individual or family through the difficult process of settling in an alien land after years in limbo.

With just $1,125 in funds from the federal government, a Catholic Charities affiliate must scramble to find low-cost housing and provide other services. After the refugees are met at the airport, a Catholic Charities case worker helps them register for a social security number, job training, school for children, English-language classes and health care.

The goal is self-sufficiency. Only a small percentage of Syrian refugees are adult males. The vast majority are women and children; only about 3% are adult males.

The USCCB’s Canny is proud of the Church’s strong legacy in the refugee-resettlement field, but he made it clear that his network is not responsible for security oversight; it is the government’s job to weed out “bad actors.”

“The vetting process is very intense. We have no concerns when these folks land at the airport and we are taking care of them,” Canny said.

“It is not our job to be the policeman,” agreed Kevin Appleby, director of the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.

“We are there to help the refugees integrate, get services and be part of the fabric of society,” Appleby told the Register, responding to a question about the controversy stirred up by the missing Syrian refugee.


Responding to Dire Need

Archbishop Wenksi, for his part, did not dismiss public worries about Syrian refugees entering the country, but he also made clear that the Church should not back off from its outreach to those who have traveled so far to find peace and freedom.

“Security is a concern,” he said. “But it should not paralyze us and so prevent us from doing the right thing.”

Editor: This story was updated on November 29.


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.