Refugee Resettlement Groups Fear Growing Resistance to Immigrants : Nationalism: Church officials say the plight of Haitians is serious, but they are more alarmed by trends in Europe, where right-wing movements are calling for the expulsion of foreigners.
In the midst of a slumping economy, national religious agencies that resettle refugees are scrambling to find congregations willing to a adopt Haitians entering the United States.
Church workers say that finding a job and a place to live for the Haitians, at a time when growing numbers of Americans have neither, is getting harder.
Beyond those immediate problems, religious organizations involved in resettlement have begun to take on a much bigger cause. Agencies are looking with horror upon what they view as a growing, worldwide and frequently violent resistance to immigrants and refugees.
Fear of an anti-foreigner backlash, here and abroad, has propelled immigrant aid agencies into the arena of national and world politics.
Whether in good times or bad, organized resettlement is always delicate work. The essential task, workers say, is to elicit charity and openness, rather than resentment and fear from new American neighbors.
In recognition of the growing problem, agencies are striving to place the new stream of Haitian refugees in areas where jobs are available and, preferably, those with large Haitian populations.
But, while problems in the United States are viewed as being serious, refugee officials are most alarmed by trends in Europe. In France, Belgium and Austria, as well as other countries, right-wing nationalist movements have recently emerged with the promise of expelling foreigners. In Germany, skinheads and neo-Nazis have been terrorizing African, Asian, Middle Eastern and even East European refugees in several German cities.
“In terms of immigration, Europe is almost in a state of hysteria. A paranoia has set in,” said the Father Richard Ryscavage, director of the Catholic agency’s Migration and Refugee Services. Ryscavage referred to the trends in Europe as “a wave of xenophobia.”
In recent weeks, pro-refugee organizations have expressed fear that similar sentiments may be just below the surface of politics in the United States.
On Monday, the U.S. Catholic Conference fired off a statement condemning the British government for the forcible return of Vietnamese refugees who have sought political asylum in Hong Kong, a British colony.
“During this holy Christmas season, to forcibly return Vietnam persons who have already suffered so much, is unacceptable,” Ryscavage said in a formal statement. Britain launched the forced repatriation Dec. 11 by returning 25 Vietnamese asylum seekers.
Similarly, religious aid agencies have criticized the Bush Administration for persistent attempts to forcibly repatriate Haitians fleeing their country amid political turmoil. The attempts, so far, have been thwarted by court order.
The Administration’s policy toward Haitian refugees “defies the boundaries of decency and fairness,” four Protestant agencies charged in a recent letter to Bush. The letter was signed by Dale S. de Haan, director of Church World Service, and officials of three Protestant denominations--United Methodist, American Baptist and United Church of Christ.
Religious leaders see a latent nativism in the renewed cries of “America first.” These cries are heard, they say, not only from right-wing populists like Republican presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan, but from Democratic politicians as well. For example, some Democrats have complained about President Bush helping Kurdish refugees and other foreigners while giving short shrift to needs of American workers.
Buchanan recently made remarks interpreted by some as suggesting that American immigration policies should favor whites over blacks.
“I think God made all people good, but if we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishman, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?” Buchanan asked in a Dec. 8 appearance on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.”
A Lutheran church official, Ralston Deffenbaugh, said the statement had signaled the introduction of “race baiting” into the 1992 political contest.
Deffenbaugh, executive director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in New York, described the statement as “dangerous and divisive” and a contradiction of “principles that our country is based on.”
Since the early waves of immigration to the United States, religious groups have been at the forefront of resettlement work. Migration and Refugee Services, an arm of the U.S. Catholic Conference, is the largest of the groups that work with the estimated 130,000 refugees who come to the United States each year. The conference handles nearly 40% of the refugee cases, according to church and government figures.
Deffenbaugh’s Lutheran agency resettles about 10,000 refugees a year. As many receive help each year from Church World Service of the National Council of Churches, an association of 32 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. Next to the U.S. Catholic Conference’s operation, the nation’s largest resettlement agency is the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works primarily with Soviet Jews.
These agencies’ sharp response to anti-immigrant rhetoric has provoked an equally sharp response from those favoring new restrictions on immigration into this country. U.S. law allows for 700,000 immigrants a year, in addition to the 130,000 refugees, who fall into the separate category of those who flee their homelands because of political persecution.
“What you have here is a very vocal and powerful lobby,” said David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The federation, based in Washington, advocates a limit on immigration of about 300,000 a year.
“It’s very easy to stand up in your bell tower and call for more immigration. But when it comes down to it, the church groups aren’t the ones that will come up with the bucks needed” to keep refugees and immigrants in the United States, Ray said. “It’s the taxpayers who foot the bill.”
Hinting at a financial interest, Ray noted that religious agencies “get money from the government” for every refugee they resettle.
According to State Department figures, the organizations receive $588 for each refugee whose case they handle. Yet Ryscavage of the Catholic agency said the church spends $2,000 to $3,000--including in-kind services--to get a refugee set up in a community.
“That far outstrips anything the government gives,” Ryscavage said. The costs beyond the State Department’s per capita grant are absorbed by the church, he said.
While considered a credible force in the United States, the aid agencies acknowledge that they have little direct influence over policies in Western Europe. As one way of reaching the Continent, Catholic Church leaders are drawing up plans to bring groups of Western Europeans to America to teach them about ethnic diversity.
“I think we have a lot to teach them about how multicultural societies work--how we’ve effectively integrated newcomers into our communities,” Ryscavage said.
Notwithstanding the recent warning signs of latent U.S. nativism, some religious leaders say they believe that the American tradition of welcoming the newcomer is still alive and well in churches.
Matthew Giuffrida, who heads the immigration and refugee program of the American Baptist Churches, said local congregations appear to be responding swiftly and generously to calls for help in the resettlement of Haitian refugees. Other church officials report a similar openness, even at a time of growing economic uncertainty.
“There is a deep well of good will in the United States. And it is the task of churches to keep that alive,” Deffenbaugh said.