President Donald Trump’s first week in office has signaled major changes are on the way for immigrants and refugees seeking new lives in the United States.
On Wednesday, Trump signed executive orders to move forward on the construction of a wall on the southwest border and crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, a broad term that refers to jurisdictions that do not fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts.
Congressional sources also confirmed to The Huffington Post that the president is expected to issue an executive order later this week that will dramatically restrict refugee admissions to the U.S. and deny visas to individuals from countries his administration deems high-risk.
Many religious organizations that support refugee and immigrant populations responded to Wednesday’s news with dismay.
“Catholic teaching is very clear: we are called to welcome the stranger,” Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice said in a statement. “President Trump’s actions today are antithetical to our faith.”
A draft of the order on refugee resettlement obtained by HuffPost indicates that the Trump administration is planning block refugee admissions from the war-torn country of Syria indefinitely. It also plans to suspend refugee admissions from all countries for 120 days and ban all “immigrant and nonimmigrant” entry of individuals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 30 days.
“This decision will mean that many of those who are the most vulnerable, the most at risk of further violence, the least likely to be able to fend for themselves, are now to be left without hope. Such a position does not reflect who we are as a nation, or as a people of faith,” The Rev’d Canon E. Mark Stevenson, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries said.
Refugees undergo a stringent, two-year long vetting process once they are recommended by the U.N. refugee agency for resettlement in the U.S. It includes various security and medical clearances as well as cultural orientation.
If the U.S. government stops processing or admitting people even for a week, “their exit visa expires or their medical expires, they have to go back and start all over,” Nina Zelic, director for refugee services for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, told HuffPost.
“When do we stop being America? I think it could begin the moment any refugee thinks of us as a land to fear."”
Robert Bank, president and CEO of American Jewish World Service, noted that there was a time when the U.S. “acted with indifference to Jewish and other refugees from Europe during World War II.” He urged the Trump administration not to let history repeat itself.
“We object in the strongest terms to the demonization of Muslims by the new American administration,” Bank said in a statement. “We understand what it means for a community to be demonized by authoritarian powers, and we regret that President Trump does not understand this lesson from the darkest chapters in world history.”
Leaders from the the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Unitarian Universalist Association, Church World Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the United Church of Christ and a host of other faith-based organizations also criticized Trump’s actions.
“If the president does go through with an executive order to suspend refugee resettlement and to close access to asylum seekers, we know that many lives will be put at risk and hopes for a future will be destroyed,” said Susan Krehbiel, of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Faith organizations and local congregations may need to pick up the slack, she added, “to mitigate the abandonment of the federal government to this cause.”
“As people of faith,” she said, “when others choose to act out of fear, we choose welcome.”
Trump’s orders could engender a humanitarian crisis that should worry all people of faith, said Linda Hartke, LIRS president and CEO, in a statement.
“As Christians, we do not fear our new neighbors who have fled for their very lives – we embrace them. As people of faith, we are called to love and serve our neighbors – and as a result, our churches, our communities and our nation are stronger,” Hartke said.
Rev. John C. Dorhauer, who serves as the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, said: “As a religious leader, I am gravely concerned. I ask myself: when do we stop being America? I think it could begin the moment any refugee thinks of us as a land to fear.”
Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders organized a vigil and rally outside the White House Wednesday afternoon to stand in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. In New York, Muslim advocacy group the Council on American–Islamic Relations organized an “emergency rally for Muslim and immigrant rights” to take place Wednesday evening. Nearly 8,000 people said they were going to attend on Facebook.
Despite the outcry from many faith leaders, some of Trump’s own religious advisors argued that although the Christian faith commands believers to welcome the stranger, this imperative does not apply to the government.
“It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelical pastor and the president of the international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, told HuffPost.
But Sister Campbell urged senators and representatives to “remember what Pope Francis said when he addressed Congress, ‘We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.’”
“We call on Congress to do all they can to protect the vulnerable in our world, which include refugees, immigrants, and children,” Campbell said.