Refugee resettlement in the United States has become the latest hot-button issue in the debates over who is permitted to enter (or remain in) the most prosperous nation on the planet. Church ministries and advocates are hardly staying on the sidelines.

The Biden pledge to raise the number of refugees allowed to settle in the US—which he’d campaigned on and Church-sponsored aid groups had hailed—suffered a near-death experience last Thursday. Forecasting a shortfall settling even the 15,000 refugees authorized by the Trump administration (a level so low that Biden had called it “short-sighted and cruel”), the president walked back his pledge. The ensuing outcry from humanitarian aid organizations, including Catholic social service agencies, and Democrats in the Congress, forced the president to recommit to admitting more refugees. But no firm numbers were set.

It’s been enough to cause whiplash. Especially for long-suffering refugees. In February, the Biden administration issued a preliminary order quadrupling the number to be admitted in 2021. By March, action remained stalled, and refugees who had been cleared by US Homeland Security were cancelling flights and languishing in a stateless limbo, in the absence of presidential authorization to go forward. Then in April, in a single news cycle, a bewildering series of reversals leaves more questions than answers. Whatever May brings, it’s unlikely the US will deliver on Biden’s original promise to admit 62,500 refugees this fiscal year.

The US Bishops’ Committee on Migration, Catholic Relief Services, and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA numbered among the faith-based advocates raising public objections to the flip-flopping. It’s hard to fault them for running out of patience. The entire resettlement sector, in which the US Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services remains a dominant player, has been reeling for years.

As annual refugee admission levels fell steadily from 115,000 in 2016 to just 15,000 in 2020, drastic budget cuts followed. Agencies such as local Catholic Charities offices, contracted by the US State Department (through the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) to do the actual resettlement work, have struggled to fund operations in the face of an 87% reduction in refugee admissions.

Meanwhile, as doors were shut to refugees, waves of would-be asylees, unaccompanied minors, and others seeking to reunite with family members placed higher demands on humanitarian groups at the Mexican border and beyond. According to surveys by the Center for Migration Studies, a think tank sponsored by the Scalabrinian Fathers, faith-based aid providers have dealt with sharply rising requests for help from immigrants. Concurrently, federal agencies have reduced their capacity to process resettlement and asylum requests. The agency charged with handling most of that work, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, was planning to cut its workforce—comprised mostly of agents who vet refugees and asylees and process their applications—by 70% last August. While the cuts were averted, hiring freezes have remained in effect, despite a backlog of more than 1 million cases, and a spike in applications.

Because the migrant-aid ecosphere has lost so much capacity over the last four years, making good on any promises to do more for refugees will be a tall order. It’s difficult to envision it happening without additional appropriations from a reluctant Congress. However distinct the legal channels may be for refugees, the whole system remains under-budgeted and under stress. How does this impact refugees, in particular? And what is important to bear in mind about their plight?

It helps to know: Who is a refugee? And who gets to say so?

First, “refugee” is a formal, legal term that describes a person who has crossed a border to escape very specific dangers in his or her homeland. A refugee does not migrate for economic betterment or family reunification. A refugee seeks protection from life-threatening, sometimes genocidal, violence.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, founded in response to massive displacement in Europe following the second world war, determines who can receive protections, recognition, and assistance as a refugee. The UN’s Convention and Protocol relating to the status of refugees, issued in 1951, has been amended slightly during the past 60 years, but continues to govern member states’ responsibilities to refugees. The Protocol defines a refugee as:

“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Often witnesses or survivors of trauma, refugees may have been targeted by their own governments, or by insurgents or rival ethnic groups. They must document the persecution or violence they have endured, and essentially prove they can’t go home safely. To prevent them from becoming stateless and penniless, the community of nations, under the auspices of the UN, intervenes to host these displaced persons, all too frequently in sprawling, overcrowded camps in transit countries, until they can be resettled permanently or repatriated, if and when circumstances stabilize.

While multi-lateral agreements and protocols have existed for more than half a century, the sheer scale of the problem in recent years has outstripped the world’s ability or willingness to respond. Even as more and more people are displaced around the globe, fewer and fewer nations are opening their doors to them. Before Covid, only one-quarter of one percent of refugees were being resettled each year in a new country. The average stay in a refugee camp now exceeds 10 years. If the US meets its stated admissions goal this year, it will welcome fewer than one out of every one thousand refugees in the world. Most will remain in host countries, more than three-quarters of which are developing and under-resourced themselves. The poor are hosting the poor.

Catholics, including Pope Francis, often invoke the Flight into Egypt: Like the Christ child, taken by his parents to avoid harm at home, modern-day refugees flee because their lives depend on it. The Church views their claim as fundamentally biblical in origin. Because they are such vulnerable migrants, dispossessed of nearly everything they couldn’t carry, the forcibly displaced hold a place of privileged concern in Catholic ethical thought and Catholic Social Teaching.

They hold an undeniable place, too, in the heart and teaching of Pope Francis, who has journeyed to Lesbos and to Lampedusa, places of profound human suffering. The Holy Father may travel to such “margins” as a pastor and a pilgrim, but he negotiates as a diplomat. After his historic visit to Iraq just last month, his advocacy on behalf of displaced Christian Yazidis is already bearing fruit. In exhortation after exhortation, Francis has called for refugees to be welcomed, protected, and integrated more fully into the communities that receive them—even the Vatican. History is bound to remember the current pope as the papacy’s most ardent defender of refugees.

Consistent with its critique of global exclusion and indifference, the Holy See promotes an inclusive understanding of who is a de facto refugee. There are millions of people, for example, who must flee home, but cannot or do not cross a border. These “internally displaced” seek haven, instead, in another part of their native country. Their ability to make a living, educate their children, practice their religion, or settle in safety may not travel with them. Of the 80 million refugees in the world today, more than 45 million are internally displaced. The Vatican has made their plight the focus of heightened concern and advocacy over the past two years.

The United Nations does not yet recognize “climate refugees” as a distinct category of people on the move, but the Church has begun to do so, issuing a report this March that outlines pastoral plans for responding to this growing phenomenon. It references a sobering forecast published by the World Bank in 2018 that predicts as many as 140 million additional people will be forced to leave home in the next 30 years because of rising sea levels, droughts, and other complications of climate change. This would triple the number of refugees in the world.

Pope Francis will no doubt sustain his visible and pastoral role responding to the cascading refugee crises of our times. In a moving encounter last month, he met with the father of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body, washed up on the shores of Turkey, stunned the world six years ago. But the Holy See is also taking the long view, geopolitically, anticipating the pace of migration and displacement will continue and escalate in the decades ahead. Home will become a memory, or a dream, for too many. And passport privilege, the freedom to cross borders, and move safely and legally around the world, may prove to be the fastest-growing front of inequality.

Projections for the near future do not look promising. Forced migration, as rapidly as it has grown in the last 10 years, is expected to increase. This global reality makes providing an option for the poor, which includes welcoming refugees, all the more urgent. Half of all refugees are women and girls, who are at higher risk of sexual violence, less likely to stay in school, and are subject to forced marriage, early childbirth, and poorer health and economic outcomes. As many as half of all refugee children do not attend school.

What the richest country in the world will do to reverse its hostility to refugees and reduce their suffering is a matter of grave consequence. As Pope Francis reminded us in a 2019 Angelus: “Mercy towards a human life in a state of need is the true face of love.” Even if the US returns to admitting one out of every hundred refugees, instead of one out of every thousand, it would be a mercy.


Featured image: Adobe Stock


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Anne Murphy is a writer and consultant living in the Boston area. The mother of three adult children, she has led Catholic schools and served as international director of communications and fundraising for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. In 2007, she co-founded a parish ministry to welcome and help resettle refugee families in the Archdiocese of Boston. Anne's writing has appeared in national magazines and newspapers. She holds a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Fordham University.

The Refugee Crisis and the Catholic Response
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