By Kirk Petersen

The U.S. presidential election looms as an existential event for Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of only nine agencies that partners with the federal government in resettling refugees.

As the Executive Council’s four-day virtual meeting got under way October 9, EMM Director Demetrio Alvero described the problem and the potential scenarios for a committee of the council. The briefing served as a challenge to the council to demonstrate how seriously it takes the concepts of welcome and inclusion.

“We have 26 million refugees around the world,” Alvero said, and half of them are children. Between the pandemic and ongoing conflict in multiple countries around the world, “It’s been the worst displacement of people and refugees since World War II.”

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the cap on the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the United States has declined every year, from 110,000 at the end of the previous administration, to the 15,000 cap announced on September 30, the very last day of the government’s fiscal year. The average over the program’s 40 years of existence has been about 80,000, he said.

“If the present administration continues, we’ll see more of these restrictive policies,” Alvero said. “There just won’t be enough refugees for nine resettlement agencies.” The agencies are compensated by the federal government on a per-refugee basis, which means revenues have plummeted. EMM worked with 31 partner organizations around the country in its resettlement work, but that number has been slashed to 12.

If the administration changes, “we could look for almost a 180-degree shift.” If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, “his administration, he said, will pledge to bring it up to 125,000 over time.” It would not happen like the flipping of a switch, as it would take time for EMM and the other resettlement agencies to rebuild their infrastructure.

In addition to resettlement, EMM’s second core activity is engagement and education. “Our engagement unit is a church-funded program… involved in a whole range of migration issues,” Alvero said. The unit maintains networks of congregations and local service providers, focused on things like detention ministry, pastoral care for service providers, sharing best practices, and connecting clients with other programs of the Church.

This work also used to be funded by the government, but the Trump administration eliminated the funding. It was an activity “they deemed not essential to carrying out the resettlement work,” Alvero said.

This forced EMM to devote limited resources to fundraising efforts to keep the program alive. As work begins in earnest on a budget for the next triennium, EMM is challenging the Executive Council to decide whether it values its long-standing mission of supporting refugees.

The resettlement program has been active for 40 years, but the engagement program and its predecessors date back 80 years, starting during World War II as the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief. And while the Church has no control over whether the resettlement program will be funded, it does control the engagement program, Alvero said.

EMM has two employees focused on the engagement program, but “we’re not just talking about saving jobs, we’re talking about, ‘is this seen as a ministry of justice'” said the Rev. Chuck Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for mission beyond the Episcopal church.

“This is about justice, this is about inclusion, this is about people who are ‘other.’ This fits quite beautifully with what we as the Episcopal Church are and have been,” Robertson said.