While refugee resettlement stirs passions across America, with dueling protests, heated debates in state legislatures and the occasional ugly display of anti-Muslim sentiment, so far the people who actually do the work of helping refugees have stayed out of the limelight.
Near St. Cloud, Minnesota, a city that has already been in the news for incidents of Islamophia, someone rented a billboard last week to display the message “Catholic Charities Resettles Islamists: Evil or Insanity?"
The billboard owner agreed to take down the message because Catholic Charities doesn’t resettle refugees — Muslim, Christian or otherwise — in St. Cloud.
In January, another faith-based refugee resettlement agency, Church World Service, was targeted in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with one protester holding a sign saying “You help ISIS.” As has often been the case with anti-refugee protests across the country, the pro-refugee counterprotesters outnumbered the original demonstration.
Now, in Texas, the state that has received the largest number of refugees in recent years, a group that drew headlines earlier this month for protesting outside of mosques while carrying rifles and shotguns, is planning to redirect their attention to those seeking to help refugees.
“We have actually been discussing protesting some of these Christian organizations that are bringing in refugees,” says Dave Wright of the gun-toting Bureau of American Islamic Relations.
“With the Islamic leaders and the imams and the mosques, we spent months researching these people and their organizations before we ever held a protest, so we’ve been doing that with some of these Christian organizations that have been facilitating the arrival of the Syrian refugees."
There's a pattern here — and reason for concern, says Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that monitors the American radical right.
“As anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment in this country has grown, thanks in large part to hateful statements from politicians like DonaldTrump and fear-mongering by members of the US Congress, the haters are turning their attentions to those who work with refugees and other immigrants,” he said in an email.
“As a result, not only immigrants but also those who care for them are increasingly being placed at risk for real criminal violence. The politicians, pundits and others who have helped create this sorry situation should be ashamed.”
The refugee agencies themselves generally take a less alarmist tone. The Catholic Charities group in St. Cloud does resettle refugees about an hour’s drive to the south, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. They haven’t encountered the same issues there.
“I think because our work is focused in the metro area, we’ve not had quite the spotlight on the day-to-day work, say, as St. Cloud has, and while we’ve had some people call and be fairly negative about our work in refugee support, we’ve also had many people call to volunteer, to ask if they could take in a family, to provide other ways of supporting that work,” says Laurie Ohmann, a senior vice president at Catholic Charities.
“It’s bringing out the best in people who have perhaps not been vocal before. At least we’re seeing that those numbers are greater than those who are worried about it.”
Will Haney of Church World Service, the agency that was targeted in Lancaster, tells a similar story. They’ve noticed the change in tone, but it hasn’t impacted their work.
“They are definitively not majority voices, and they’re not coming through all that strongly, but it’s definitively more than what we’ve seen in the past because of the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric that has either been exposed by local leaders or other individuals,” he says.
“Unfortunately, many times it’s our local offices who are doing the work of resettling refugees, who are working hand-in-hand with immigrants, that sometimes feel that change."
But, while it doesn’t make news, Haney says his group still gets frequent calls from groups and individuals wanting to sponsor Syrian refugees. However, refugees undergo a complex vetting process before they are eligible to enter the US, with separate screenings done by the the UN, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, a process that can take up to two years.
As a result, only a few thousand Syrian refugees have been resettled.
“There just aren’t as many refugees as there are churches willing to help out. The support is there. We’re just waiting," Haney explains.
Texas has been at the forefront of both refugee resettlement and the recent debate around it. Daley Ryan, the deputy director for the International Rescue Committee in Dallas, says their resettlement work continues to enjoy broad support locally, in part because of the group’s longstanding local ties.
“There have been protests against refugee resettlement, but as I’m sure you’re aware, it bleeds heavily into anti-Islamic sentiment in general,” he says. “I think what you’ve seen is the questions of refugees and the role of refugee resettlement has been brought into that. ... I mean, for instance, we haven’t seen any protests against minority Christian refugees from Burma or Iran. We haven’t seen any protests against Buddhist refugees from Arakan State in Burma, or Christians who are coming from the camps in Nepal.”
For now, the anti-refugee rhetoric has in some ways helped the refugee resettlement agencies, as they have seen an uptick in support. Still, Laurie Ohmann, of Catholic Charities, is worried about where things could be headed next.
“My concern is, what happens when some of the presidential politics start to sort out? When we’re not talking about many many candidates, but talking about two candidates, is it going to surface as an issue that surfaces as significant?"
"Some of the rhetoric has been pretty strongly negative about immigration and refugees. In some ways, the conversation could be very helpful. It has the capacity to generate conversation about what we believe, and, as the pope would say, ‘How we want to embrace the stranger,’" says Ohmann. "For those people, and I believe they are a smaller percentage of the community, that are not going to change their minds about the facts, I just worry about how they react to people in their community who are not like them.”