PROVIDENCE — Everything seemed to be moving in right direction for the Diocese of Providence just a couple of weeks ago.
Its Office of Immigration and Refugee Services, which resettles some 40 individuals and families who arrive in Rhode Island each year from far-flung countries from around the world, was prepared to do its part in helping to resettle its share of Syrian refugees, who fled their homeland to avoid persecution.
The diocese had just been contacted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which serves as one of the non-governmental organizations working with the U.S. State Department to prepare the way for the anticipated arrival of refugees next year from Syria, as well as other nations, including those from Sub-Saharan African nations.
The USCCB had recently asked the diocese if it could increase the amount of refugees it could resettle from 40 to 75, and local officials responded that number could be accommodated.
Then, the unexpected happened. The major and devastating terror attacks on France last week highlighted a weakness in the refugee resettlement process — that ISIS could exploit the mass exodus of migrants en route to Europe and beyond. By inserting some terrorists into the mix they could establish sleeper cell networks to be activated for the purpose of striking out against their enemies and causing mass casualties.
In the last couple of days, the once sympathetic tone that many Americans had toward the Syrians being displaced is being replaced by a sentiment of “Let’s rethink this.” Some officials even called for the allowance of only Christian refugees into the U.S. to minimize the risk of terrorists being unknowingly allowed into the country.
As of press time Tuesday, 31 U.S. governors have expressed a desire for their states not to accept any Syrian refugees, at least not anytime soon. Rhode Island remained open to the idea of accepting refugees, but most of the other New England states, including Massachusetts, were opposed to the idea of taking in refugees out of fear of terrorists being allowed in along with the innocent.
On Friday, following the attacks, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin offered his deep sympathy to the French people.
“Pray for the people of Paris, for the deceased, the wounded, the hostages, their families, and the leaders of the nation. How can one begin to understand the sheer madness taking place in our world? We need to repent of our sins, reform our lives, be reconciled to one another and return to God,” he said.
On Monday, the bishop released a statement indicating that even in light of such a tragedy, it is wrong to turn one’s back on those in so great a need.
“It would be wrong for our nation and our state to refuse to accept refugees simply because they are Syrian or Muslim,” Bishop Tobin wrote.
“Obviously the background of all those crossing our borders should be carefully reviewed for reasons of security. Too often in the past, however, our nation has erroneously targeted individuals as dangerous simply because of their nationality or religion. In these turbulent times, it is important that prudence not be replaced by hysteria. As is our well-established practice, the Diocese of Providence stands ready to assist in a careful and thoughtful process of refugee resettlement.”
On Tuesday, the USCCB released a similar statement.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration, issued a statement on Syrian refugees during the Bishops’ annual General Assembly in Baltimore Nov. 17.
Bishop Elizondo condemned the attacks, offering his deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the November 13 attacks in Paris and to the French people.
But then, he also acknowledged the need to keep moving forward in the refugee resettled process.
“I am disturbed, however, by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization,” Bishop Elizondo said.
He said that refugees to this country must pass security checks and multiple interviews before entering the United States — more than any arrival to the United States.
“It can take up to two years for a refugee to pass through the whole vetting process. We can look at strengthening the already stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need,” Bishop Elizondo said, noting how this tragedy should not be used to “scapegoat all refugees.”
“As a great nation, the United States must show leadership during this crisis and bring nations together to protect those in danger and bring an end to the conflicts in the Middle East.”