After decades helping refugee families become Americans, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque announced on Dec. 18 that it was getting out of the business. Its 77-year-old refugee resettlement ministry was being shut down.
“Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque has been resettling refugees from all over the world in Eastern Iowa since 1940,” said its executive director, Tracy Morrison, in a statement released by the Dubuque Catholic Charities office. “It’s a loss for our entire community.”
“Our faith guides us to believe in the dignity of all persons and the need to protect the most vulnerable, especially refugees and migrants,” Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels added in the statement. “It is with a heavy heart that we announce the ending of this ministry.”
Donna Markham, O.P., president and C.E.O. of Catholic Charities USA, is concerned that the Dubuque refugee office is only the beginning of what could become a nationwide shuttering of other small refugee resettlement efforts. New directives shared by State Department officials on Dec. 1 with the nine major refugee resettlement institutions in the United States—Catholic Charities the largest among them, she said—suggest that hundreds of refugee resettlement programs across the country may be closed over the coming months.
“We have received some indication that those agencies that are serving under 100 resettlement clients a year are at risk for being discontinued, of losing their federal contracts,” she said on Jan. 9. “So some of the agencies that are very small are threatened.”
“People that are entering the United States from another culture are faced with lack of hospitality and welcoming that is frankly an embarrassment to many of us who are American citizens.”
Sister Markham emphasized that the closing of the refugee programs “is not a decision that Catholic Charities is making…this is being driven by the decisions being made by the [Trump] administration.
“Clearly the tone coming from the administration is that people that are entering the United States from another culture are faced with lack of hospitality and welcoming that is frankly an embarrassment to many of us who are American citizens,” she said.
“We think that 25 to 30 percent of our agencies are at risk,” Sister Markham said. That means as many as 17 to 23 Catholic Charities offices around the country are now confronting the end of programs that have been successfully assimilating thousands of refugees into U.S. society for decades. Altogether about 70 of Catholic Charities USA’s 166 offices maintain refugee programs.
The potential loss in institutional memory, expertise and experience, according to Sister Markham, is incalculable.
The skills required to assist refugees families in assimilating to life in the United States, from accessing language classes and job training, assisting with housing and social integration and health care, are not easily replicated. “It’s going to be a huge loss” for Catholic Charities, she said.
“We have tried to take some of our refugee resettlement caseworkers and cross-train them to work with undocumented immigrants, helping them to get legal status, but [that skill development is] very difficult,” she added.
Just 5,000 refugees were accepted into the United States during the first quarter of fiscal 2018, meaning as few as 20,000 refugees may be allowed into the country this year.
And, assuming a future shift in policy might be more generous to the world’s refugees, reopening a shuttered site could prove prohibitively expensive. “The sophistication involved in training a caseworker in managing these clients is quite complex,” said Sister Markham. “These are not programs that can just be restarted.”
Despite criticism from some alt-right and conservative commentators, Catholic Charities and other agencies involved in refugee services are not just agonizing over the loss of fat federal contracts. In fact, according to Sister Markham, Catholic Charities does not make a cent from its refugee programs.
Like most of Catholic Charities’ efforts, refugee resettlement is paid for through a combination of public and private resources, abetted by Catholic Charities own fundraising. Federal contracts pay about 70 percent of the costs for refugee resettlement, Sister Markham said, with Catholic Charities itself covering the final 30 percent, in effect, subsidizing U.S. policy on refugee assimilation.
But, facing the loss of all federal support, she does not believe individual Catholic Charities agencies with smaller client bases will be able to assume the entire cost of such programs. They will continue, however, to support refugees any way they can through other Catholic Charities programs like housing, food or other social assistance.
Sister Markham notes that ad hoc approach represents a far less efficient way to help refugees mainstream into American life, “which is the goal of the [federal] refugee resettlement program.”
Part of the crisis looming over small resettlement offices reflects a steep drop in the number of refugees being allowed into the United States. In the last year of the Obama administration, 110,000 were admitted. That number was cut to 45,000 last year, the lowest cap since the modern U.S. refugee admissions system was established in 1980. But U.S. refugee resettlement numbers are on pace to decline even more in the coming year. According to a Wall Street Journal report, just 5,000 refugees were accepted into the United States during the first quarter of fiscal 2018, meaning as few as 20,000 refugees may be allowed into the country this year.
According to U.N. figures, as many as 22.5 million people are currently refugees crowded in third-party states such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Kenya. Many thousands of those millions have been waiting, often for years, for resettlement in the United States.
Even as the Trump administration continues a series of policy shifts interpreted by many as unnecessarily punitive to people forced into migration by crime, conflict or poverty, Sister Markham urged U.S. Catholics to remember their spiritual obligation to refugees and migrants “coming from all over the world” and from every faith.
Catholics in the United States are celebrating National Migration Week, which concludes with the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees on Jan. 14. The administration’s moves on refugee numbers contrasts starkly with the spirit of the pope’s message for the day.
Remembering that “every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ,” Pope Francis urges “broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally” and “a concrete commitment to increase and simplify the process for granting humanitarian visas and for reunifying families.”
Beyond the spiritual harm represented by a collective indifference to refugees, Sister Markham argues that all Americans lose out when the federal government turns its back on refugees. “We’ll be losing some extremely valuable potential citizens who would have contributed very markedly to the quality of our society,” she said.
That positive assessment is shared, oddly enough, by the Trump administration. A draft study conducted last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, requested but then apparently suppressed by senior officials in the Trump administration, found that refugees ultimately produced $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than the cost of their assimilation assistance.
And a study released in June 2017 by researchers at the University of Notre Dame concludes that the long-term economic benefit to U.S. society far outweighs the start up costs of resettling adult refugees, adding that refugees who enter U.S. life as children are an even better social investment.