WASHINGTON — While U.S. elected officials have an obligation to protect the security of Americans, denying entry to desperate refugees will not make the country safer, said the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.
Sean Callahan, head of CRS, said, "Welcoming those in need is part of America's DNA."
"We don't want to prevent innocent people from coming here because there are extremists. That's why we have a vetting system in place." Bill O'Keefe
"CRS welcomes measures that will make our country safer, but (such measures) shouldn't jeopardize the safety of those fleeing violence (and) should not add appreciable delay nor entail unjust discrimination," he said in a statement released Jan. 26.
Callahan was anticipating a presidential memorandum on national security, a draft of which calls for suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days. The suspension would allow officials at the state and homeland security departments to review the application and decision-making process and determine the need for additional procedures to ensure that refugees approved for admission do not pose a threat to the U.S.
Once the refugee admissions process resumes, refugee claims would be reviewed and those fleeing religious persecution would be prioritized as long as they fled a nation where their religion is in the minority, according to the draft, which President Donald Trump had not signed by Jan. 26.
It also calls for an immediate 30-day suspension of entry into the U.S. of individuals from countries designated by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
"People seeking refuge in the United States and elsewhere are victims — often of the same terrorists from whom we must protect ourselves," Callahan said, noting that the U.S. was founded as a nation of immigrants.
"As a Catholic agency founded on the social and moral teachings of the church, we must act based on our values and echo the Holy Father, who said 'there must be no family without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity,'" Callahan said, quoting Pope Francis.
"This is not just a Catholic message; this is an American message. It is the message we should be sending to those in need around the world," he said.
"Protecting America means protecting the moral values embedded in our foundation. These values make our nation great," he said.
Some people in the United States and Europe have expressed concerns that people emigrating from majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa were infiltrating the West as terrorists posing as migrants. The draft executive memorandum, "Protecting the National From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals," was designed to address that fear.
The draft memorandum said that with the end of refugee processing for Syrians, the state and defense departments must produce a plan within 90 days to provide safe areas in Syria and the surrounding region where Syrian nationals can await resettlement.
The U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center reported that, for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2016, more than 12,587 Syrians were received for asylum in the United States. It said 9,880 Iraqis were received. The two combined were 27 percent of refugees admitted to the United States last year.
Bill O'Keefe, CRS vice president for government relations and advocacy, spoke to CNS Jan. 25, shortly after his return from a mid-January visit to northern Iraq.
"I met families who, the night before, had walked through mine fields to escape ISIS (Islamic State)," he told CNS. "They had gotten to the limits of their means and fled when their young daughters were at an age to be at risk of seizure as sex slaves by ISIS. These are the kinds of people who are fleeing, and they need our help. They are fleeing the people we are afraid of; they are not the people we are afraid of."
He said profiling applied to Muslims today could be applied to Catholics tomorrow.
"Every religion has extremists," O'Keefe said. "We don't want to prevent innocent people from coming because there are extremists. That's why we have a vetting system in place."
O'Keefe said it currently takes 18-24 months to vet a refugee, "and the vetting is already extreme. It can't get more extreme. And the people who are fleeing the worst kind of violence in Syria, Iraq and other countries deserve safe haven as human beings, and we can provide that for the most vulnerable of them."
In a November 2015 interview with Catholic News Service, Jane E. Bloom, head of U.S. office of the International Catholic Migration Commission, told CNS refugees initially are selected for resettlement by the staff of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The Catholic migration commission is one of the worldwide agencies working with the U.N. refugee agency in processing people chosen for resettlement.
Before the commission vets Syrians, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducts its own screening, Bloom said. Only then can ICMC staff members begin vetting under State Department rules, collecting biographical and family information, and learning why a family fled their home in the first place, she explained.
"When it comes to vetting, refugees — and in particular Syrian refugees — are the most vetted I have come to work with in the last 30 years," Bloom told CNS.