By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
Fluid policies about refugees entering the United States have confused and concerned people responsible for resettling them here.
This is an area of intense concern for Catholic Charities locally and nationally, said Diane Lambert, senior administrator for programs for Catholic Charities Worcester County.
Timothy J. McMahon, executive director of Catholic Charities Worcester County, said the concern is two-pronged: concern about what will happen to refugees if they cannot come and concern about staff members responsible for helping resettle them here.
On Jan. 27 President Donald Trump issued an executive order which suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely and the entry of immigrants and non-immigrants from certain countries for 90 days. He also capped at 50,000 the number of refugees who can enter the U.S. in fiscal year 2017.
The order has been challenged in court, and it remained in court as of Wednesday.
Every year the U.S. president determines how many refugees can enter the country, said Kaska B. Yawo, of Catholic Charities Worcester County, who came here in 1998 as a refugee from Liberia. He is an immigration representative accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeal, which allows him to do legal immigration paperwork. He serves refugees (people fleeing persecution), and immigrants (people seeking to come to the U.S. for other reasons).
The number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. for the fiscal year 2016, which ended last September as President Barack Obama was about to leave office, was 110,000, Mr. Yawo said. Previously the number was about 70,000, with a stipulation that 10,000 could be added in response to emergencies, he said.
The drop to 50,000 “took us by surprise,” Ms. Lambert said. “We did expect 110,000.”
She said some of the 50,000 arrived in the United States before President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, including 16 individuals in nine households whom Catholic Charities Worcester County resettled here.
Also approved for Catholic Charities to resettle this fiscal year are 13 more households composed of 32 refugees, she said. They are from Iraq, Syria, Bhutan, El Salvador, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Each year the state coordinator of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants decides how many refugees each agency can resettle, Ms. Lambert explained. Catholic Charities Worcester County was approved to resettle 60 people in fiscal year 2017, with an allowance for 10 percent more if needed, she said.
Catholic Charities is one of three local agencies with refugee resettlement programs, she said. The others are Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center and Ascentria Care Alliance (formerly Lutheran Social Services of New England).
Catholic Charities’ resettlement program is part of the network of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services, she said.
The current situation for refugee resettlement is “very fluid,” Ms. Lambert said; “it could change in an hour.” Not knowing is hard, she said.
Mr. McMahon said if they knew refugees could come after the 90 or 120 days, Catholic Charities staff members would work with the people who are already here while waiting for the newcomers. But because of the uncertainty, Catholic Charities is talking about contingency plans, he said. They’re considering how staff members can continue to add value to refugees’ lives, and use their skills in other areas of the agency for now.
“They’re a very talented staff and we would not lose them,” he said. “The uncertainty now will one day be resolved and we want to have the staff in place to continue the work they’re doing.”
Catholic Charities is a “U.S. Tie” program, which means refugees it resettles have people here with whom they are connected, Ms. Lambert said.
Mr. Yawo said refugees sometimes leave most of their family behind, perhaps in different refugee camps, even in different countries, when they come here. If they are prohibited from reuniting, there will be much stress and depression on both sides, he said.
Before being approved to come, refugees are checked by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, Ms. Lambert said.
Some medical and background checks expire after a certain period of time, so delays in coming might require these to be done again, which slows down the system, Mr. Yawo said.
Many of those approved to come are women, children or people with serious health conditions or other needs that might be better addressed here than where they are, Ms. Lambert said.
Catholic Charities is in solidarity with refugees, she said.
“Our doors are always open for them, as they are for the whole community,” she said. “It goes back to the Holy Family” – they were refugees.
“The refugees add to the growth of the community,” she said. “Worcester is seen as a welcoming community, to its great credit. And we have a moral obligation not to turn our backs on people in other parts of the world. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That’s what we believe as Catholics.”
Asked about what ordinary people can do in response to this situation, Mr. McMahon said it is hard to say, since things are so fluid. He said they could join Catholic Charities’ voice in opposition to President Trump’s executive order, and “be as vocal as possible as a united front.”
How can they do that?
Ms. Lambert said they can tell their political representatives on the local, state and national levels that they want refugees in their communities.