Olympia diocese welcomes refugees, sues to keep resettlement efforts alive

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 10, 2017

Syrian refugee Baraa Haj Khalaf, left, kisses her father Khaled as her mother Fattoum, right, cries after arriving at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on Feb. 7. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski /REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] The federal appeals court ruling Feb. 9 that blocked reinstatement of the Trump administration’s temporary ban on refugee admissions was welcomed by Episcopal Church leaders in Washington, where the Diocese of Olympia is pursuing a separate lawsuit against the president’s executive order.

The diocese helps coordinate the resettlement of 190 refugees each year. Of the refugees now preparing to arrive in the Seattle area, about 90 percent are expected to come from one of the seven Muslim-majority countries singled out in President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 order, which also banned visitors and visa holders from those nations. A federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked his ban on Feb. 6. It was that ruling that the three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld on Feb. 9

The Diocese of Olympia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a separate lawsuit Feb. 7 challenging the executive order.

Refugees who had been held up at airports overseas when Trump first signed the executive order are now making their way to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Still, the legal uncertainty threatens to shutter the diocese’s Refugee Resettlement Office, a scenario Bishop Greg Rickel said would run counter to the Episcopal Church’s mission.

“This executive order is a violation of the foundational principles of our nation,” Rickel said in a Feb. 7 statement announcing the lawsuit. “As a member of the Jesus Movement, I believe the United States has a moral responsibility to receive and help resettle refugees from the more than 65 million people who have been displaced by war, violence, famine, and persecution. To turn these vulnerable people away and limit the flow of refugees into our country is to dishonor the One we serve.”

ACLU Washington agreed to take the case pro bono and filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Diocese of Olympia. Two unnamed University of Washington college students also are listed as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.

“A lot of the other lawsuits that have been filed against the (executive) order don’t specifically address the needs of refugees,” said Josh Hornbeck, the diocese communications director. But refugee resettlement is at the core of the Diocese of Olympia’s lawsuit.

Its Refugee Resettlement Office is one of 31 affiliates nationwide that partner with Episcopal Migration Ministries to find homes in 27 Episcopal dioceses and 23 states for refugees escaping war, violence and persecution in their homelands. This year, 110,000 refugees were expected to arrive in the United States. Episcopal Migration Ministries is one of nine agencies – more than half of them faith-based – that work in partnership with the U.S. Department of State to welcome and resettle refugees.

Those efforts were thrown into chaos late last month when Trump, seeking to fulfill a campaign promise to pursue “extreme vetting” of refugees, signed an executive order halting all refugee resettlement for 120 days while his administration reviews a security process that already can take years. The order also blocked entry for 90 days of visitors and visa holders from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, and from Syria indefinitely.

As reaction to the order played out in the United States through protests, court cases and the White House’s evolving interpretations of its own order, refugees and visa holders initially were stuck in limbo.

The Diocese of Olympia was about to welcome 12 individuals in five refugee families when the Jan. 27 ban first went into effect, but those families were left waiting at an airport in Kuwait, unable to board planes to the United States, Hornbeck said. Another 86 individuals had been vetted and were awaiting medical screenings before buying their plane tickets to Seattle, but they were suddenly prevented by the executive order from moving forward with those plans.

Now that opponents of the Trump order have won an injunction while the legal battle proceeds, the Diocese of Olympia’s immediate efforts at resettlement are back on track. Hornbeck said four of the 12 refugees who had been waiting to board planes in Kuwait are expected to arrive in Seattle on Feb. 10.

The Refugee Resettlement Office, like other EMM affiliates, works with host congregations to set up apartments for the incoming refugees and then to greet them at the airport and take them to their new homes. In the Seattle area, those homes typically are outside the city, in communities where housing prices are less expensive, Hornbeck said. The refugees also are given help in finding jobs and in adjusting to the new culture.

The Seattle agency receives federal money to assist with the resettlement; even a temporary ban could cause enough financial harm as to cast doubt on the Refugee Resettlement Office’s ability to continue operations, Hornbeck said. Refugee resettlement money flows via EMM to the affiliate network under the terms of a contract with the federal government.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council on Feb. 8 pledged solidarity with refugees while pursuing financial and legal responses to the president’s order.

Council granted $500,000 to Episcopal Migration Ministries to bridge it financially during Trump’s suspension of refugee resettlement and as that work presumably resumes on a smaller scale. It also requested that the 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 for refugees.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (16)

  1. Ralph Davis says:

    As a life-long Episcopalian, I am concerned with these overtly political moves by the church. Neither this, nor the church’s involvement in the Dakota pipeline issue, represent my political views. While I respect the rights of others to their views, I am very concerned that the Episcopal church is ignoring the views of its conservative members and acting as if they speak with one voice for all Episcopalians.

    1. Bill Louis says:

      Your pledges fund the Diocese and the greater church. If you and others are unhappy as am then pull your pledge to send them a message. Are you aware the Episcopal Executive Council just agreed to fund thecEpiscopal Migration Ministries with $500,000 to settle more refugees? They are funding this with money from our pledges. I wonder how many Episcopalians are aware of what the Greater Church does with their money.

    2. Fred Reynolds says:

      Mr. Davis I agree wholeheartedly. Well said.

  2. I would like to suggest that we take the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” off of all the children of God.
    I am in the Diocese of East Tennessee, and I recommend these words of The Right Reverend Charles vonRosenberg,”The radical message of Christianity–when it is preached and lived faithfully–is that Jesus Christ sees the world through the eyes of the powerless.”

    1. Richard T. McClellan says:

      Exactly. We forget that our LORD and his parents were refugees in the land of Egypt escaping Herod’s persecution. Not to mention our own ancestors came over HERE as immigrants also. Just saying.

  3. Richard Atkinson says:

    Perhaps it is not so much a political issue as it is a moral issue. Peace…..

    1. Richard T. McClellan says:


  4. Susan Paynter says:

    I’m pleased the appellate court blocked reinstatement of the administration’s travel ban that disrupted so many lives. I’m also pleased the church has stepped in with funds to continue the work of welcoming the stranger. I am curious, though, what is meant by “church’s stance of religious tests for refugees.” We have a religious test for refugees?

    1. M. H. Fournier says:

      Susan – that’s a typo; should be “church’s stance *on* religious tests for refugees.” And, no, TEC has no such test and opposes such “tests”. You can access a January 25, 2017 Episcopal News Service release for more details.

  5. Don Ellis says:

    Really read the gospels, and then see what kind of statement you can formulate about the conservatism of which Jesus would approve, remembering what he said to the conservatives that time.

  6. walter woodson says:

    The church is not very different any other organization with a political agenda; rest assured the ECUSA has a very clear political agenda. Bill Lewis is on target. Follow the money; that’s the bottom line behind the sanctimony.

  7. Josefina Beecher says:

    Proud and relieved to see our Diocesan Council and Bishop standing up to protect the dignity of every human being.

  8. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I agree completely with Mr. Davis and Mr. Louis. Here in Boston our Diocese has deliberately politicized itself in an extremely left-wing manner which is already starting to split apart the distinguished Episcopal church of which I have been a member for many years.

  9. Paul F. M. Zahl says:

    I would guess that about 30% or so of lay Episcopalians support our new President. When official pronouncements of our Church begin to sound as ideological, politically, as they are beginning to sound, this starts to be received — emotionally — as a kind of “excommunication”. I fear that many sincere Episcopalians, feeling judged by their own Church, are going to quietly drop out. Some people may say ‘good riddance’, but that wouldn’t be right.

  10. Patricia L. Farnell says:

    I was thirsty and you gave me drink;,,,,, I was in prison and you visited me…I guess those are political statements. Shame on you, Jesus, for being liberal in your teachings.

  11. michael barth says:

    Happy to see this good work happening and I am sorry that it is seen as partizan. This love for our neighbors, the welcoming of strangers is what makes me proud to be an Episcopal.

Comments are closed.