Washington — Local Catholic Charities agencies are scrambling to save staff jobs as they respond to President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily suspending the country's refugee resettlement program.
Although the order remains on hold after a three-judge federal appeals court panel Feb. 8 denied a government request to overturn a temporary restraining order against Trump's action, agencies across the country are shifting staffers into other programs should the courts reinstate the resettlement ban or the administration issues a new order.
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, CEO and president of Catholic Charities USA, said up to 700 workers are affected in some way by the order, with many of them losing their jobs.
Sister Markham and her national staff at Catholic Charities USA's Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters are so concerned for the workers and the refugees they serve that the agency launched a campaign Feb. 2 to raise $8 million to save jobs in 80 dioceses nationwide.
"It's a mess. It's just a mess. If we're talking about American jobs, this is laying off people in these public-private partnerships," Sister Markham told Catholic News Service.
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"We'd like to see if we can raise $8 million to make a dent in (the impact on) some of these jobs so we can retain some of these positions to continue the programming for those already here," Sister Markham said.
Trump's executive order, signed Jan. 27, suspended the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 days and banned entry of all citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — for 90 days. Another clause in the order established religious criteria for refugees, proposing to give priority to religious minorities over others who may have equally compelling refugee claims.
It also capped the number of refugees entering the country during fiscal year 2017, which ends Sept. 30, at 50,000, down from the ceiling of 110,000 set by Barack Obama's administration.
Nearly 30,000 refugees have been admitted since the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, the Department of State reported.
The resettlement program in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, will be among those most severely affected.
The agency originally expected to resettle 685 refugees during the current fiscal year, but could see that number reduced by more than half, said Judy Katzel, chief communications and development officer for Catholic Charities Maine. The agency has 24 full-time and part-time case managers, aids and administrative employees. It is the only organization in Maine that resettles refugees.
"We are working very hard how to maintain our staff during this four-month waiting period," Katzel said.
"If they cut it to 340 (refugees) or so, of which we've already resettled 218, we would be facing potentially having to lay off half (of the staff)," she said. "As much as our mission is to welcome the stranger and welcome the refugee population, we want to look very hard to keep our staff intact as best we can."
At Catholic Charities Maine, like agencies across the country, workers are responsible for assisting refugees beyond their arrival day. They work with the new arrivals for months afterward, helping them with housing, budgeting, adjustment to American life, job training and placement, and learning English. In many cases, staffers were once refugees themselves.
Catholic Charities leaders said they are hoping to avoid layoffs through reassignments to other departments or by raising their own funds to allow staffers to continue in their roles. They expressed concern that staffing cuts will make it difficult to get back up to speed when the refugee pipeline reopens.
More so, diocesan officials said, staff members remain upbeat, focusing more on the plight of refugees fleeing war, violence and discrimination than being concerned about their own jobs.
"Our main concern is the refugees. That's where our hearts are. That's where our prayers are. We want to be able to continue the work when the 120 days are up," said Heidi Smith, director of refugee services in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Smith said layoffs are being considered, but that she and her staff are working to avoid them. She told CNS that her staffing level is lower than what is needed to resettle the 676 new arrivals they were expecting under the ceiling set before Trump's inauguration.
"For the staff members on the front end of the arrival process, we're looking at ways we can use them" including in advocacy for and education about the resettlement program at parishes, schools and businesses, she said.
In Boston, Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services for the archdiocesan Catholic Charities system, is operating in a "wait-and-see" mode.
"We still don't know, once (the ban) is totally lifted if the number of refugee arrivals is not what we anticipated. We're still going to have to look at how we're going to keep a full complement of staff," she said.
Boston is slated to resettle about 200 refugees during the current fiscal year. The State Department has set a lower number in Boston than in many other locales such as Maine because of the high cost of living in eastern Massachusetts.
Through Feb. 10, Boston had resettled about 70 people. "We were pretty much on track to meet our projected number until these executive orders came down," Perhot said.
At Catholic Charities in the Cleveland Diocese, two of the 38 staff members are facing a layoff, said Thomas J. Mrosko, director of Migration and Refugee Services. If Trump's cuts in resettlements hold, Mrosko expects to resettle about 200 refugees rather than the 400 first expected.
"We don't want to see our program implode," he said, explaining that staff members are being reassigned so that the diocese can be up to speed quickly in four months. "We were designed to resettle more people than are coming in the future."