CINCINNATI — The day President Donald Trump issued his executive order suspending the refugee program for 120 days, Ted Bergh, CEO of Catholic Charities in Cincinnati, saw four families bound for resettlement in the U.S. disappear from his calendar.
The State Department had canceled the resettlement of two families from Bhutan, a family of eight from Somalia, and a mother and two children fleeing Syria. The families had been in very difficult situations, Bergh told the Register. A number of the refugees had suffered from hearing loss and malnutrition and were recovering from burns.
The two children in the Syrian family were 3 and 4 years old, Bergh told the Register.
“That family has had their suitcases packed,” he said. “They got rid of all their possessions in the camp, whatever they needed to live there, and then just got turned away.”
Bergh said they have no idea what has happened to them now.
Over the course of a week, Donald Trump issued three sets of executive orders dealing with border security, immigration and refugees — each of them putting promises he made on the campaign trail into executive-branch policy. The executive orders suspending the refugee-resettlement program and temporarily barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations torn by civil strife occurred Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the day of the annual March for Life.
The Executive Orders
Citing concerns about a surge of illegal immigration at the border with Mexico, and ongoing drug and human trafficking by sophisticated criminal networks, Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order stated the administration would seek to construct a physical wall on the southern border, patrolled by adequate security personnel, and establish detention facilities to house unauthorized immigrants captured by law enforcement until their claims of asylum, or their repatriation, can be processed. Currently, just 700 miles out of the 2,000-mile border has noncontiguous fencing, given the natural separation by mountains, severe desert and the Rio Grande.
A separate Jan. 25 order marks for deportation unauthorized immigrants who have committed, been charged with, or could be charged with “a criminal offense”; or who have willfully misrepresented themselves to the government or defrauded public-benefits programs; or who have not complied with their final deportation order; or whom an immigration officer judges to be a public safety or national security risk.
The order also directs the hiring of 10,000 additional immigration officers and makes clear that states and cities that provide sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants risk losing federal grants.
“We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Trump’s order stated. An estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants live and work in the U.S.
President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order immediately suspended refugee resettlement in the U.S. for 120 days and reduced the annual cap on refugees from 110,000, which President Barack Obama set for 2017, to 50,000. Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely. He said additional refugees would be permitted — including Syrian refugees — when he determined it was “consistent with the national interest.”
The order, which went into immediate effect and led to scenes of chaos at U.S. airports and other points of entry, also banned most travelers coming to the U.S. from Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran for 90 days, pending a national security review. Those seven countries had been labeled as “countries of concern” by the Obama administration.
Trump did instruct federal agencies to prioritize refugees facing religious-based persecution, “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”
The order was halted Feb. 3, pending a challenge in federal court. On Feb. 9, the 9th Circuit Court upheld the lower court ruling against the executive order.
The Bishops Respond
A number of U.S. bishops and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) — who have praised Trump for pro-life policies that align with Catholic social teaching — criticized his orders on immigration and refugees.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said neither individuals nor government could fulfill their duty to the common good by “callously mistreating individuals, especially the weak.”
“Being ‘pro-life’ involves a great deal more than a defense of unborn life, though it should naturally start there,” he said. “We also have grave responsibilities to the poor, the infirm, the elderly and the immigrant — responsibilities that will shape our encounter with the God of justice when we meet him face-to-face. There are few embodiments of the weak more needy or compelling than refugees.”
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice president of the USCCB, wrote in a column for Angelus News that the 90-day to 120-day waiting period can mean “the difference between life and death” for families and individuals trying to escape regions racked by violence. He pointed out refugees are not the main source of domestic terrorism, and the travel ban does not even cover countries that have real problems with terrorism, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He addressed Trump’s moves on immigration as well, saying that a policy of lax enforcement of the laws had led to “millions of undocumented people living, working, worshipping and going to school in our country.”
“A policy of enforcement only — without reform of the underlying system — will only lead to a human-rights nightmare,” he said.
Latino Catholic communities are especially on edge after Trump’s immigration orders. The Catholic Sentinel reported that a Jan. 29 Spanish Mass in Portland, Oregon, was invaded by a gang of eight men, bellowing about the church harboring immigrants and verbally abusing them in other ways. More than 300 community members formed a human chain around St. Peter’s parish in Portland the following Sunday, so Catholics could worship in peace.
Trump’s Jan. 25 and Jan. 27 executive orders have shown the president putting into national policy the major themes of his campaign.
“I think it’s clear President Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do,” Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, told the Register.
Canny explained the U.S. bishops have outlined a number of principles contained in Church teaching with regard to migration: People have a right not to migrate, and action should be taken to allow people the option to stay in their homelands; people have a right to migrate when they can no longer sustain themselves and their families; sovereign countries have a right to control their borders for the good of their citizens, but this is subject to the universal common good, and refugees must be afforded protection; and immigrants (authorized or not) must have their human rights and dignity protected.
Regarding “the Wall,” he said the bishops’ conference is concerned that erecting a security barrier all along the border, rather than addressing the root causes of forced migration, will force people seeking refuge to put themselves in the hands of smugglers, making the journey “infinitely more dangerous.”
Enforcing Existing Laws
However, Tommy Binion, director of policy outreach at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, said Trump’s actions in these executive orders “reflect a deep sincerity and a seriousness of purpose” in enforcing the immigration laws and keeping the nation safe from terrorism.
Binion told the Register that Trump’s executive orders on immigration are actually just enforcing laws that have been on the books for decades. Erecting a physical barrier on the border, he added, comes from a 2006 federal law that had been “passed on a bipartisan basis.”
Building the wall, he added, is a first step toward getting serious about border security. Binion added that ending the “catch-and-release” policy of the Obama administration would also discourage people from putting themselves in the hands of human smugglers, called “coyotes,” who promise migrants that immigration officers will not incarcerate them if they are caught.
Luanne Zurlo, an assistant professor of finance at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics, told the Register that tighter border control needs to happen in tandem with reforming immigration policy. Zurlo has seen firsthand how illegal immigration has distorted the social organization of sending countries, having visited communities in Mexico largely devoid of their men, who send back remittances to towns filled largely with elderly, women and children. In El Salvador, remittances are the biggest driver of an economy that has few options. But Zurlo explained this arrangement has “debilitating” social effects.
“Young people are growing up without fathers,” she said. The more men feel stranded on one side of the border, unable to visit home, the more likely they will just settle in the U.S. and start new families, even as they support the ones at home, she explained.
Effect on Refugees
Meanwhile, the refugee-program suspension could have consequences for the worldwide system, according to William O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ vice president of government relations and advocacy, who argued Trump did not have to suspend the refugee program to conduct a security review. If countries see the U.S. back away from welcoming refugees, O’Keefe said, it could provoke other countries, such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which are actually straining to care for millions, to do the same. O’Keefe pointed out that the European Union made a deal with Turkey to keep refugees from crossing the Aegean to find better lives in Europe. After that, Kenya decided to close its refugee camps, he said, “because they wanted the same deal.”
“If we don’t fulfill our role, it’s very difficult for us to ask them to fulfill their role,” he said.
However, John Klink, a former Vatican diplomat to the United Nations and president emeritus of International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that Trump is inheriting the greatest refugee crisis since World War II — a crisis that had been greatly inflamed by the leadership failures of President Obama.
“It is one of the most complicated scenarios anyone can possibly imagine,” he said.
Klink, who was part of a board of Catholic advisers to Trump during the presidential campaign, said Trump appears to be taking a CEO approach to audit the refugee and travel-entry systems, identify any major problems or weaknesses, and fix them. He also understood the president’s concern to verify, and not simply trust, that the federal government under Obama had truly secure vetting processes that would keep Americans safe from bad actors. He said the president could end up confirming the vetting process is already strong, and that could restore public trust in the system.
“It is temporary. He’s not doing a ban on all migrants and refugees,” he said.
Klink added that Trump’s executive orders on refugees makes him hopeful that religious minorities facing persecution and genocide will finally get more attention to their plight. Christians in Iraq and Syria, when he visited them, Klink explained, felt “completely abandoned” by the Obama administration. So did Yazidis and others. He said he is also hopeful that Trump will follow through on establishing “safe zones” that will help people return to their homes in these conflict areas.
“The first principle of Catholic teaching on migration says people have a right to stay home,” he said. “As Europe has seen, the solution is not mass permanent migration. People have a right to protection so they can stay in the land of their birth.”
Help for Christians
Trump has said he wants to give priority to Christian refugees, noting that it was “very tough” for Christians from Syria to enter as refugees. But the situation there is complex: An analysis of State Department records by The Washington Post found that 15% of refugees from Iraq in 2016 were Christian, while less than 1% of refugees from Syria were Christian.
However, the differences may result from Christians in Syria having security from jihadists by living in government-controlled areas, or having gone to nearby Lebanon, which has a substantial Christian population. Still, many Christian leaders from Syria and Iraq reported severe obstacles in getting visas to travel to the U.S. during the Obama administration.
However, Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based advocacy organization for the rights of Middle-East Christians and human rights, said that while IDC recognizes the country’s need for security, Christians fleeing persecution from the Middle East have not fared well under the Trump refugee and travel bans.
One Christian refugee family from Syria, he said, arrived from Lebanon, was sent right back, and then was deported to Damascus. Nassif said IDC is deeply concerned about their fate, as well as the welfare of other families sent back.
“We’re unable to track them. We can’t find where they went,” he said. “That has really been the issue with this executive action.”
Nassif said IDC wants priority for victims of genocide as refugees, but legislation on Capitol Hill will be needed to accomplish that.
He added that IDC has welcomed the discussion of “safe zones” because they could help stabilize Lebanon and Jordan, which have millions of registered and unregistered refugees living in their borders. Nassif said it could be a first step to get to the heart of the problem.
“Nobody really seems to be able to find a solution to the conflict in Syria, and in particular the refugee crisis,” he said. “We’re going to have to work to figure that out pretty quickly. It has been neglected and needs to be addressed more forcefully.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.