By Kirk Petersen
President Donald Trump’s executive order barring entry to the country for certain refugees and immigrants has thrown Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) into a period of uncertainty — and at least temporarily has stopped a small but steady flow of refugees from war-torn countries who seek a new life in America.
The Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson, director of EMM, told Executive Council Feb. 6 that EMM and its 31 affiliates in 23 states will need additional financial support from the church to sustain the complicated network that resettles more than 5,000 refugees each year.
The council and its committees also considered other topics at its quarterly, four-day meeting in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, including further movement toward full communion with United Methodists and new priorities for Episcopal Relief and Development in the next five years.
Refugee resettlement “is core gospel work; it is the Jesus Movement in action. Lives are saved every single day through this work,” Stevenson said. “We’re asking the Executive Council to help find a way to keep the network vital.”
At press time, council was discussing the details of a potential support plan.
Public discussion of the executive order has been largely focused on the 90-day ban on entry from seven majority-Muslim countries, but EMM’s focus is on another part of the order: the banning of new refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days.
Stevenson said that while the ban is for four months, it will disrupt operations for half a year or more, continuing even after the ban is lifted. “It will not be a quick restart,” he said, because personnel at some of the affiliates may be laid off or reassigned during the ban. “The process of resettlement begins overseas … and because there’s no one coming through, those offices are shutting down.”
He explained that EMM, its staff of about 30, and employees at its affiliates are highly dependent on payments made by the federal government for each resettled refugee. Those payments stop when the flow of refugees stops.
“It’s important to note that the church budget does not cover the cost of any payroll at EMM, including mine,” Stevenson said. The federal government, through the departments of State and Health and Human Services, provides slightly more than $20 million annually to EMM, which passes along roughly 90 percent of that to the 31 affiliates. Any money not spent on program returns to the federal government at the end of the year.
Since the Refugee Act of 1980, EMM has been one of nine resettlement agencies, six of them faith-based, that process all refugees entering the United States. Stevenson distinguished between refugees and the far larger flow of people who enter the U.S. as legal and illegal immigrants or on temporary school or work visas.
To be designated a refugee, individuals must demonstrate to the United Nations that they are fleeing their countries because of war or other conditions that threaten their lives. Once the U.N. verifies the refugee designation, the individuals will stay in “a country of first refuge” — most likely in a refugee camp — while they are vetted for resettlement in the United States or elsewhere, Stevenson said.
For U.S.-bound refugees, the vetting process typically takes 18 to 24 months and is quite rigorous. “You might even say it’s ‘extreme,’” Stevenson said, alluding to a term used occasionally by President Trump.
EMM and its affiliates do more than find a place for refugees to live. For traumatized people who have landed in a new culture very different from what they know, the network provides language instruction, cultural orientation, and support in finding employment or schooling. “Otherwise we’re just resettling them into poverty,” Stevenson said.
The Episcopal Public Policy Network in Washington has supported refugees in several ways, including coordination with 23 other religious organizations on advocacy for refugees, said Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of government relations. “The most recent thing we’ve taken on is a campaign called 2 by 4” that urges Episcopalians to call members of Congress two times in the next four months in support of refugees.
“It’s clear that God calls us to be in community,” Stevenson said. “It’s clear that God tells us to welcome the ‘other.’” Throughout the Old and New Testaments, “the constant refrain from God is, You always make space for the alien. You always treat the widows and the orphans and those who are the most vulnerable … with dignity, you always help them.”
“The work of Episcopal Migration Ministries is God’s work, and we show the face of God through the care and compassion in that work,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said.
In other business, council committees heard reports that the decades-long movement toward full communion between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church has reached another milestone, as a detailed proposal has been sent to both churches.
The Rev. Margaret R. Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith collaboration, said the proposal is likely to be considered for ratification by the United Methodists’ General Conference in 2020 and by General Convention in 2021.
Episcopal Relief and Development is preparing to publish a new strategic plan that will focus the agency on three priorities for the next five years: early childhood development, combatting gender-based violence, and climate change adaptation.
“If you can ensure that a child’s first 1,000 days … are healthy, the overall payoff of that investment is dramatic,” said Robert Radtke, president. He said the strategic plan will be released in the spring.
The council also was scheduled to consider a resolution supporting the people protesting and trying to block the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. During a committee meeting, a council member interrupted to announce that the Army Corps of Engineers had just approved the project. The approval followed a letter from President Trump calling on the Corps to expedite the review.