Blowback on Two Decisions on Refugee Resettlement 

Two Republican governors, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas and Greg Abbott in Texas, reached opposite decisions on refugee resettlement. Hutchinson said, “yes;” Abbott, “no.” [1] Both have received blowback.

Arkansas[2]

In Arkansas, some GOP state legislators said they unpleasantly were surprised by Hutchinson’s decision to consent to resettlement and asked him to appear before a legislative committee to explain and justify his decision.

The Governor did that on January 13 and emphasized that his decision was buttressed by the U.S. “acceptance of refugees who have aided overseas U.S. military personnel and [the U.S.] heightened . . .level of security screenings” and by the likelihood that fewer than 50 refugees will likely come to the state’s northwestern Washington County under this program. He also told the committee, “Each of you are leaders in your community. You’ve got a choice to make: You can create fear or you can help resolve fear. I challenge you to help resolve fear, have the facts, and to talk about those.”

Another point by Hutchinson was the “cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Trump administration that found refugees contributed $63 billion more in state and federal taxes than they received between 2005 and 2014. He noted that refugees are typically eager to go to work and become self-sufficient. “I believe . . . it’s a positive thing that we bring immigrants to our country, that they benefit to us in terms of their work and their paying taxes.”

Hutchinson also personally introduced to the committee “a Congolese refugee, who after nearly two decades in a refugee camp in Kenya now lives in . . . [the state] and works as a certified nursing assistant at a senior living facility, and a refugee from Afghanistan who fled his native country after his life became endangered for helping U.S. authorities.”

After the hearing, Republican state Sen. Trent Garner, who had requested the meeting, said, “This isn’t an issue to create fear. This is about legitimate security concerns and having a major change happen and people not being informed.”

On the other hand, “refugee advocates said they were heartened by Hutchinson’s remarks and hoped they would help the public understand resettlement better.” According to Emily Crane Linn, executive director of Canopy Northwest Arkansas, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency, “I hope that as people ask questions and as they learn the truth, they will come to feel the same way I do about this program, that it is part of what makes this country great, it’s part of what makes our state great and it’s absolutely something that should continue.”

Texas[3]

Governor Abbott’s decision was criticized by at least three faith-based organizations: the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the last  of which was discussed in the prior post about the decision.

The Texas Catholic Bishops said the Governor’s decision “is deeply discouraging and disheartening. While the . . . [Conference of 16 bishops] respects the governor, this decision is simply misguided. It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans. The refugees who have already resettled in Texas have made our communities even more vibrant. As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien. We use this occasion to commit ourselves even more ardently to work with all people of good will, including our federal, state and local governments, to help refugees integrate and become productive members of our communities.”

Governor Abbott “has cited his [Catholic] faith to support anti-abortion and other conservative policies. But on the issue of refugees, he sharply diverges from the official positions of his church ― and the example set by Pope Francis.[4]

The Episcopal Church “condemns Gov. Abbott’s decision to reject refugee resettlement in 2020. Texas has long served as a strong partner in the work of welcoming some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world to peace, safety, and a bright future. Texas Episcopalians have also given generously of their time, talents, and treasure to help our refugee brothers and sisters rebuild their lives in the Lone Star State.” The statement added the following:

  • “Texans have long been known for their southern hospitality and generosity of spirit. Additionally, many Texans are people of strong faith who take seriously the Gospel call to welcome the stranger and to help those who are fleeing religious persecution and violence. The Episcopal community in Texas shares these values.”
  • “Refugees bring immense value to communities throughout Texas. They have invigorated the economy, brought innovation to small towns, and made communities stronger through their contributions to public life and cultural institutions. Refugees in Texas are students, entrepreneurs, dedicated employees, customers, elected officials, and community leaders – just like us. They are us.”

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Five Mores States Have Consented to Refugee Resettlement (Jan.7, 2020); Texas “No” to Refugee Resettlement (Jan. 11, 2020).

[2]  Field, Arkansas governor defends refugee decision, urges legislators to ‘help resolve fear,’ Ark. Democrat Gazette (Jan. 14, 2020); Assoc. Press, Arkansas Governor Defends Decision to Accept New Refugees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2020).

[3]   Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, Texas Catholic Bishops respond to Governor Abbott’s decision to turn away refugees (Jan.10, 2020); Kuruvilla, Texas Catholic Bishops Denounce Governor Abbott’s Decision To End Refugee Resettlement, HuffPost (Jan. 13, 2020); Burke, Every Catholic bishop in Texas is slamming Gov. Abbott’s decision to bar refugees, CNN (Jan. 13, 2020); Episcopal Church statement on Texas Gov. Abbott’s decision to reject refugee resettlement (Jan. 11, 2020).

[4] See Pope Francis Reminding Us To Welcome, Protect, Promote and Integrate Refugees and Migrants, dwkcommentaries. com (Jan. 1, 2020)..

Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom

Dr. Reinerio Arce
Seminary Chapel, Matanzas, Cuba

 

Dr. Reinerio Arce, a Presbyterian pastor and President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, recently commented on various issues in Cuba, including religious freedom.

He advised this blogger that the recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accurately described improvements in Cuban church-state relations in 2011, when it stated:

  • Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2011. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Additionally, there were fewer reports of illegal house churches being fined, confiscated, or evicted.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continue to improve, although the government maintains strict oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and intervening to stop officials from preventing the Ladies in White from attending mass in Havana. March 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba‘s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba starting on March 26 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he will be received by Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue, La Mambisa, has toured the island, drawing large crowds.”

Arce emphasized the rapprochement between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church that was marked by the recent visit to the island by Pope Benedict XVI. Work was suspended so Cuban people could attend the papal Mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion, and the government granted the Pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday. Before this visit, Arce noted, there was nearly a month-long pilgrimage of the statue of the Virgin of Cobre, the patron saint of charity and of Cuba, all over the island and in hospitals, prisons and other public places.

According to Arce, however, the Commission engaged in manipulating half truths and bringing together things that are not related when it talked about some Cuban religious leaders and followers having been arrested and held for short periods of time and reports by some church leaders about increased government surveillance and interference with church activities.

Even more astounding to Arce and to this blogger is the failure and refusal of the Commission to appreciate that the positive developments in Cuba outweighed any negatives and to remove Cuba from its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] threshold, but require close monitoring.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)

Cuba is going through significant economic changes with more opportunities for Cuban private business ventures. Simultaneously, Arce pointed out,”the government has withdrawn from many of the subsidized [industries] to make room for the private businesses. Now, many people are [becoming] unemployed because [government jobs] are going to this private sector. It has been a great challenge in Cuban society–especially for the churches because many [Cubans] do not know how to rearrange their work [to be in the private sector]. Many of them are coming to the church to ask for help, which is a big challenge for all of the churches in Cuba.”

In response to this challenge, the Matanzas seminary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center (in Havana) are planning a joint course focusing on business administration and related subjects. The seminary and the MLK Center have agreed this program will not promote small, private businesses, but instead cooperatives. Arce said, “We think it is more within the Christian understanding of economy.”

Arce gave thanks for recent changes in U.S. policies regarding travel to Cuba. Now it is easier for U.S. church groups to obtain U.S. Treasury Department licenses to go to Cuba to be with their Christian brothers and sisters. These are important “bridges between our people; [after] all these years of confrontation between our countries, the churches have maintained a strong relationship between the people.”

Another recent change in U.S. policies was commended by Arce. Many Cuban churches–Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist–were once parts of their corresponding U.S. churches, and the Cuban pastors earned U.S. pension benefits. Until recently, however, the U.S. government prevented the U.S. churches from paying the Cubans their earned pensions. Earlier this year the U.S. government ended the freeze, and the pensions will soon be paid. The Cuban pastors have been in a very difficult financial situation caused by the freeze. This blogger has personal experience with this issue because the Cuban pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s partner church in Matanzas, Cuba was one of those who could not receive his pension benefits from the U.S. church. I join Arce in shouting a big “Hallelujah”

Many U.S. and Cuban church members have been involved in people-to-people exchanges in recent years. In the process they have experienced the joy of love and solidarity. The Promised Land of more general friendship and respect and solidarity between our peoples is our goal. Praise the Lord!

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