Thursday, December 10, 2015

How Catholic Leaders Are Defying Governors Who Are Trying to Block Refugees

By Leslie Caimi

Note: This article was first published December 8, 2015 by The Washington Post.

The Catholic Church is pledging assistance to Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in the United States, thwarting attempts by governors to prevent an influx of refugees from the war-torn nation.

On Monday night, the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis facilitated the arrival of a Syrian refugee family to the city, openly challenging Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s call to halt the arrival of refugees from Syria.

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris on Nov. 13, Pence joined 31 governors, primarily Republican, in objecting to the federal government’s program to resettle refugees from Syria in the United States, citing fears that there are gaps in the screening process for potential security risks.

Pence was among those state leaders who directed state agencies to suspend disbursing funds for services to refugees originating from Syria.

But Catholic leaders across the United States cried foul on plans to close the door on refugees from Syria, loudly reminding their respective communities of the humanitarian need.

The Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on migration chided the governors for “using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees,” in a statement on Nov. 17.

“They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization,” Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said.

Bishops from Chicago, New York, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Mexico were also among those who penned opinion pieces for local papers or open letters calling for compassion over overreaction.

“We must find a way to open our doors to them,” New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in a New York Daily News opinion piece about the need for a wide embrace of Syrian refugees.

Despite the church’s call to keep the door open to refugees, Pence met last week with local Catholic leaders to urge them to “defer from welcoming” a Syrian family seeking placement in the state until Congress passed new legislation providing more stringent security screening for refugees from Syria, Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin [right] said in a statement on Tuesday.

Tobin said he listened to Pence’s concerns “and prayerfully considered his request” but ultimately decided to proceed with assistance for the arrival of a Syrian family with two small children in Indianapolis on Monday night. The assistance came through “a public-private partnership between the federal government and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Migration and Refugee Services,” according to the statement.

“For 40 years the Archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world. This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition,” Tobin said in a statement.

The refugee family was placed with relatives who live in the Indianapolis area, after fleeing Syria three years ago. The family of four underwent “extensive security checks” over a two-year period before they were approved for entry into the country.

A spokesman for Pence said that the governor “holds Catholic Charities in the highest regard but respectfully disagrees with their decision to place a Syrian refugee family in Indiana at this time,” according to a statement on Tuesday from the governor’s office.

Pence’s office said it would continue to suspend state participation in the refugee resettlement program for Syrians, which could include state funding for English language training, medical services, food stamps and employment readiness programs.

Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the archdiocese, told the Indianapolis Star that Catholic Charities would still apply for state benefits for the family. If the funding was denied on the basis that the family is from Syria, Otolski told the paper that Catholic Charities would be able to cover the resettlement expenses for the family.

“The family is entitled to the same benefits any refugees arriving in Indiana receive. We hope that the state will not single them out,” he told the paper.

Pence’s office did say the Indiana Department of Health would reimburse the cost of health-care screening for refugees, including those from Syria, by county health departments in the state.

In addition to Indiana, on Monday, Texas became home for a family of six from Syria despite opposition from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

Despite Abbott’s fervent objections, the family arrived in Dallas on Monday where they will live with relatives, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, who assisted with the resettlement, told the Associated Press.

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