The Episcopal Church first formally became involved in refugee resettlement work in the 1930s, resettling people fleeing Nazi Europe. The Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, the predecessor of Episcopal Relief & Development, grew out of this movement. A poster, dating from 1938, uses an iconic image referenced in Matthew 2:13-16 of the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt to avoid King Herod. Photo: Episcopal Migration Ministries
[Episcopal News Service – Linthicum Heights, Maryland] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council Feb. 8 pledged the Church’s solidarity with refugees in the face of President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending their entry into the United States.
A federal judge on Feb. 6 temporarily blocked Trump’s action, leaving the State Department’s refugee admissions program in limbo.
Council’s approach was two-pronged: financial and legal. It granted $500,000 to Episcopal Migration Ministries to bridge it financially during Trump’s suspension of refugee resettlement and as that work presumably resumes, albeit on a smaller scale. It also requested that presiding bishop investigate whether it is “appropriate and advisable” to defend in court EMM’s refugee resettlement ministry and the church’s stance of religious tests.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who said earlier in the day that Episcopalians must root their public advocacy work in the values of Jesus, told a post-meeting press conference that council’s EMM actions were a perfect example of that rootedness. Christians believe the admonition found in the Letter to the Hebrews that in welcoming strangers, one might be welcoming angels without knowing it.
“We have to stand there and stay in that work,” he said. “The critical part of it is not to just talk the talk; it’s walking the talk.”
Curry said that council “had the courage” to continue to support its nearly 80-year-old ministry to refugees in a new way even though it will cost much more money than expected. When the Episcopal Church advocates for refugees with policymakers, he said, “We can say we’re not asking you to do something we’re not doing ourselves.”
Trump’s executive order, still being litigated, suspends all refugee resettlement for at least 120 days. When the program restarts, it imposes further restrictions on potential refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Furthermore, after that resumption, Trump said only 50,000 refugees can enter the United States instead of the anticipated 110,000 this fiscal year.
EMM needs the financial support from the church-wide budget because the majority of its income comes from contracts with the federal government to cover the costs of resettling refugees approved for entry to the United States. The federal contract directly ties that money to refugees’ arrival. Thus, if refugees cannot enter the U.S., EMM does not receive money.
In the 2016 fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, EMM resettled 5,762 refugees to the United States from 79 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Afghanistan and Syria. Already this fiscal year, EMM welcomed 2,400 refugees and anticipated resettling 6,175 people until Trump signed his order Jan. 27. On Jan. 26, the Rev. E. Mark Stevenson, EMM director, said, EMM welcomed 42 refugees and has resettled nearly 70 since while the order has been contested in court.
Structurally and fiscally, EMM is a unique ministry of the Episcopal Church. While it is not separately incorporated, as is Episcopal Relief & Development, it receives very little money from the church-wide budget.
EMM anticipated $14.2 million from the U.S. State Department and $6.2 million from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The State Department money covers the arrival and placement phase for each refugee’s first 90 days, in the country. The HHS money funds a matching grant to provide 180 days of services to certain, but not all, refugees. Those services included extended English as a Second Language classes, job training and cultural orientation.
Some funding for EMM’s national office is guaranteed through March 31, Stevenson said, but the pre-refugee funding halts during the suspension.
Stevenson said 99.5 percent of the contract money directly goes to resettling refugees. EMM retains about $2 million for administrative costs, including all staff salaries. Any unused money goes back to the government.
“This is not a money-making venture,” Stevenson told Episcopal News Service.
The concern extends beyond the Church Center-based work of EMM. It collaborates with its 31-member local affiliate network in 23 states, along with 27 dioceses plus faith communities and volunteers to resettle refugees. Those organizations receive money via EMM from the federal contract and will have no income when no refugees enter the country. Affiliates will have to rely on cash reserves, fundraising and whatever support EMM can give them to pay their employees, pay leases and cover other operating expenses.
Stevenson told the council that EMM must be able to sustain its ministry during the suspension and restart phase of the government’s resettlement program. To do that, the Church needs to support financially the national EMM office and find ways to help sustain their affiliates during the suspension so that they are ready to resume resettling refugees in what he predicted would be a slow restart.
Newly arrived refugees needs include housing, health care and education about life in the United States. If the local affiliates are not prepared to meet those needs, refugees will enter the country but they will be resettled into poverty and vulnerability, albeit different from the ones they have escaped, he said.
“This is gospel work that we are about,” Stevenson said, citing both the Old and New Testaments’ insistence to “treat the alien as our neighbor.”
In addition to the bridge funding of as much as $500,000 this year, council left open the door to giving EMM additional money in 2018, if needed. The ministry must provide a “definitive sustainability plan” for using the money.
In the legal context, council requested that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry investigate whether it is “advisable and appropriate to file, or intervene in, litigation as appropriate in order to defend the refugee resettlement ministry of EMM,” according to the resolution it passed.
Moreover, the presiding bishop was asked to do the same exploration of efforts “to contest the imposition of any religious test upon any refugee, asylum seeker, or other person seeking residence, asylum or lawful entry into the United States.” The resolution says “such tests are contrary to our faith and contrary to a good faith construction of the U.S. Constitution and governing federal law.”
Council told the presiding bishop to consult to with the president of the House of Deputies, the church’s chief legal officer, council’s Executive Committee, EMM’s director and the Office of Government Relations as he considers any such actions. It also asked the chief legal officer to report confidentially to its next regular meeting, on the progression of that investigation, and any actual litigation might result. The members left the door open to convening electronically if needed.
(Council’s Governance and Administration for Ministry committee finished crafting the job description for the chief legal officer position during the meeting and the application process is now open. The last meeting of General Convention created the position, making it a canonically required job.)
The Rev. E. Mark Stevenson, Episcopal Migration Ministries director, holds a sign listing the biblical imperatives for welcoming the stranger. Photo: Episcopal Migration Ministries via Facebook
In one of many closed-door committee and plenary sessions during the meeting, council members met privately to ask questions of the members of council’s Governance and Administration for Ministry’s committee, which proposed the resolution. After that discussion, and following substantial debate and amendments, council passed the resolution 14-9.
Council also said it wanted to convey to the Diocese of Olympia and Bishop Greg Rickel “its strong support” for their refugee ministry. The diocese, which has a resettlement agency, recently joined the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing Trump’s order.
‘Extreme vetting’ already happens
EMM is one of nine U.S. resettlement agencies that do this work under government contract. By federal law, refugees may only enter the U.S. under the auspices of one of those agencies.
The term “refugee” has a specific legal meaning. The United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees designates a person as a “refugee” if they are fleeing persecution, war or violence. Those people apply for that designation and are regarded as distinct from immigrants. They earn refugee designation after UNHCR vets their application.
The U.N. agency then refers the refugee to a specific country. If that country is the United States, a subsequent vetting process begin. That second process is “very rigorous, one might even say extreme,” Stevenson told ENS. Syrian refugees received an added layer of scrutiny, he said.
The U.S. State Department then works with the nine agencies to decide which one of them will resettle that person. It takes a few months for the paperwork to be complete so that the person can enter the country.
The entire vetting process, Stevenson said, takes between 18 and 24 months.
The Feb. 5-8 meeting took place at the Maritime Institute Conference Center.
Additional ENS coverage of the meeting is here. Some council members tweeted from the meeting using #ExCoun.
The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1). The council comprises 38 members – 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons, and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by the nine provincial synods for six-year terms – plus the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies. In addition, the vice president of the House of Deputies, secretary, chief operating officer, treasurer and chief financial officer have seat and voice but no vote.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.