Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross, Museum of Modern Art in DC

Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross, Museum of Modern Art in DC

On the altered travel ban and some thoughts about Evangelicals

I feel kind of sucker punched again. This time by our Supreme Court’s decision to permit the altered version of President Trump’s travel ban to move forward. I don’t fully understand the details or implications for refugee admissions and Beautiful Day since the focus on the news is on other travelers, but, yes, I'm worried.

Every time I feel sucker punched, my impulse is to pull out my computer and start writing—but I've also had a surprisingly hard time putting thoughts or emotions into words. I ramble or my logic feels muddy, or there’s enough opacity or confusion about the implications for us that I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Or I have hard time finding my sense of humor. I don’t want to upset people, especially if it’s a wait-and-see or nothing-can-be done situation. Ever since I founded Beautiful Day, I’ve felt strongly that we must be the kind of organization that is energized by a wide variety of ideas and solutions, right and left, faith-based and secular. Plus I refuse to be another loud, angry, divisive, exhaustingly negative, self-righteous voice out there. Our emphasis has always been on practical solutions and community engagement more than talk. So I end up leaving blog posts half-written and un-posted. But I also know I’ve got to get my voice back, even if the logic is fuzzy or my sense of humor hidden.

I can at least say that I’m troubled.

I’m troubled about what the recent Supreme Court decision could do to our American resettlement system over the next few months—though in back door kind of way that is full of distractions, lack of clarity, and circular arguments. It’s always seemed strange to me that the travel ban even included refugees—as if they were an afterthought. But what if dismantling the refugee system is actually the bigger goal? Or just the unintentional result. The media is always going to focus on green card holders or those with work visas arguing for entry, and universities and companies will be advocating for them—because that’s where the money is. Refugees are almost always hidden afterthoughts without money. Yet depending on how this modified ban is carried out between now and October, I’m afraid that a large part of the refugee resettlement system could be dismantled without many people even noticing.

Here's how I see the problem: the refugee resettlement system—like any other under-resourced system (I know this because I lead one!) is pretty fragile. I try not to complain too much about resources for refugees because I've seen ways that scarcity can really benefit them, especially when it forces resettlement organizations to be creative about relying on their surrounding communities. If surrounding communities get involved enough to build relationships—to become friends—with refugees, then this provides them with invaluable social capital. That’s a resource money can never buy. But resettlement agencies are also fragile because of their funding structure which is partially on a per capita basis (meaning a local resettlement agency gets paid on the basis of how many refugees they resettle). This effectively turns all refugee flow problems into cash flow problems. Stop the refugees, you stop the modest money that keeps the system alive. This means that just a few months of almost no refugees arriving (with total uncertainty after October) is more than enough to lay off resettlement staff at every level of organizations, from administrators at the national level to local teachers, case managers, and job developers. This has already been happening. And when people who love this work enough to do it without much pay are laid off, they are ultimately forced out into better paying jobs. We all know that people who are forced into better paying jobs almost never come back.

And that’s just part of the problem. The other involves government leadership. I’m not in a position to see this first hand, but from what I understand, the resettlement system is just one of many serving the most vulnerable in our country right now who are essentially being underminedthrough leadership vacancies. Or worse, in some cases, by vacancies being filled by people who do not believe deeply in the importance of what they are doing.

By way of analogy, what would happen to Beautiful Day if our board of directors started filling our leadership positions with people who did not deeply believe in the importance of this work? How long would we last? Believe me, especially in a vulnerable system, that kind of leadership is worse than just blindness. It’s a special kind of blindness that doesn’t believe it’s blind. The teaching (from Jesus) about leadership and vision that keeps coming to mind for me is: if the light within you is darkness, then how great is that darkness!

So that’s my Supreme Court’s decision worry. The other—as long as I'm on the on the subject of Jesus—is the apparent extent to which Evangelicals have become the Trump Administration's base source of support. (My own roots are Evangelical, so I'm trying to do my part to speak up.) Evangelicals have always been a backbone of support for refugees—incredibly generous, self-sacrificing, fearless, personally involved champions. Yet within the last political cycle, by directing their concern "for life" almost exclusively toward the unborn, Evangelicals in effect turned their backs on those who are alive and suffering. What a terrible and unnatural splitting. I have a hard time getting my head around it. (Without doubt Evangelicals have a bad track record on racial justice, diversity, and religious tolerance—so that may be where the blindness started. And they struggle with an either-or mindset in which too many things get split into right and wrong, with everyone supposed to choose. But that simplicity has gotten very complicated.) Choosing Trump now involves turning away from personal ethics and honesty, a concern for the poor, the sick, the homeless, the disabled, the displaced, and refugees. I think it’s a catastrophe. If the light within you is darkness…

The good news, I suppose, is that, should Evangelicals ever speak up, they would be probably listened to. It’s definitely time.

What are the stakes if the United States turns its back on the refugees of the world? I expect a vicious cycle: increased generation of refugees, increasing retention of refugees in some of the world's poorest countries who are least equipped to care for them, increased hopelessness of these populations, increased turning to radical anti-western solutions, decreased exposure in our communities to refugees, decreased empathy and understanding, increased tendency to blame and distance, and an increased fervor of enemies of the United States to use the power vacuums we are leaving in humanitarian efforts. The dismantling of the refugee system is only a self-fulfilling prophesy that will increase radicalization. If the light within you is darkness… And this is a simple argument based on self-interest. If we consider other people as important and valuable as we are, then that means putting ourselves in the shoes of the displaced, seeing them as brothers and sisters.

My eerie sense is that underneath all the policies and noise and arguments, the Trump administration dislikes anything that is “weak.” Weak will always include immigrants and refugees. But if you hate weak things, then you won’t like human beings. You won’t like yourself very much. Love itself can be a kind of weakness. And unless Evangelicals acquiesce to being nothing more than a non-faith-based voice for white religious nationalism, I don’t see how they can continue without changing course or self-destructing.

And on that cheery note… (at least, this wasn’t as long or as rambling as I had expected) I did scout around the internet looking for faith-based responses to the Supreme Court decision. I’ll quote one I liked from Mark Hatfield (President, CEO of HIAS) here. It's way past time for Evangelicals to start talking like this.

We feel, however, that these shameful executive orders cause ‘irreparable damage’ to America’s standing in the world as a beacon of welcome and human rights, and to the United States’ tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants in a way that we have not seen in over fifty years.

For the American Jewish community, this hearkens back to our darkest days of the 1920s to 1940s, when America last broke with its tradition of welcoming refugees by imposing discriminatory and tragic admissions criteria based entirely on where people were born. The results of those discriminatory laws and policies, particularly for those trying to escape the Nazi genocide in Europe, were tragic. The result of this executive order to allow arbitrary criteria to turn away refugees and other non-citizens will also have tragic results, demonstrating that we have forgotten the lessons we learned. The Fourth and Ninth Circuit courts recognized that neither the Constitution nor the laws of this country permit the President to exercise such potentially harmful authority without evidence to justify the tragedies that will inevitably result. We hope that, in the fall, the Supreme Court will recognize the same.

Of course, I am eager to hear what you think and how this is all playing out in your neck of the woods. So please feel free to comment.

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