[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
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.