Around the Archdiocese

Refugee resettlement in unsettled times

Catholic Charities program & current events explored

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

A recent executive order issued by President Donald Trump has cast a shadow of uncertainty over Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

The Jan. 27 executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” placed a 90-day ban on people entering the U.S. from seven countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan – and also suspended the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days to review the vetting process to ensure those being resettled pose no risks to national security.

A week after it was issued, a federal district court judge out of Seattle placed a nationwide restraining order temporarily blocking key aspects of the president’s executive order. That decision was upheld on Feb. 9 by a three-judge federal appeals panel that refused to reinstate the travel ban.

It is unclear today what will become of the president’s executive order. It could be further appealed in the courts – possibly even to the U.S. Supreme Court – or it could be revised and reissued.

Tracy Morrison, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the archdiocese, said she is waiting to see what happens with the executive order and how it will impact her agency and the people they serve.

“We have 59 refugees from various countries who have been screened and vetted and have been approved for resettlement in the United States, and we have said, ‘yes,’ we can resettle them. And now with everything up in the air, we just don’t know for sure what will happen with them,” Morrison said. “While the Feb. 9 ruling marks a significant victory for the millions of people who are fleeing their home countries to escape violence and persecution or who have been impacted by the travel ban, it is only a provisional one.”

Refugee resettlement has a long history in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Established in 1940, the resettlement program is Catholic Charities’ longest serving archdiocesan ministry.

“Some of the largest groups of refugees to be resettled in the archdiocese were Hungarian refugees in the mid-1950s and then Vietnamese refugees at the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-70s,” Morrison said.

In recent years, most refugees have come to the archdiocese from the countries of Myanmar (Burma) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others have come from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Bhutan.

In fiscal year 2016, Catholic Charities resettled 96 refugees in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. So far for federal fiscal year 2017, which began Oct. 1, 2016, Catholic Charities has resettled 34.

“We believe strongly as a church that our social teaching guides us to protect the most vulnerable and refugees certainly fall in that category. And so we feel it’s important to be able to do our part,” Morrison said.

Catholic Charities works in partnership with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a contractor of the U.S. State Department for refugee resettlement. Each year, the U.S. government determines the number of refugees it plans to resettle in the country. The State Department contracts with 10 agencies to facilitate those resettlements, with the USCCB being the largest of those contractors.

In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Catholic Charities only handles what are called “U.S. tie cases,” meaning the agency only resettles individuals who already have relatives living in the archdiocese who they will be joining.

Cedar Rapids and Waterloo receive the majority of refugees settled in the archdiocese. Other communities have included Hiawatha, Oelwein, Marshalltown and Postville.

“Most of our refugee families are coming here with nothing – literally nothing but the clothes on their back,” Morrison said. “They have been forced to leave their home country often times under the fear of death. Most refugees have been living in camps for 5-10 years on average and so they need an intensive level of support upon arriving in the U.S.”

Catholic Charities helps them find housing, furniture, food and clothing and assists them in getting a job and enrolling their children in school. The agency also helps them secure any benefits for which they might be eligible and lines up medical examinations (which is in addition to the exam they already have gone through at the governmental level).

“Most importantly, though, is that cultural orientation piece, helping the refugee family understand how to live in the United States,” Morrison said. “We also help them learn English as a second language – because most of them come here speaking only their native language.”

This process all takes place within a jam-packed 90 days. During this time, Catholic Charities case managers work closely with the refugees as they help them get established.

“We have the equivalent of 2 ½ case managers, and with refugees scattered in different communities, those managers are stretched really thin. They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s not unusual that they receive calls from refugees in the middle of the night,” Morrison said. “It’s a real ministry for them – they have a heart for this and are dedicated to helping refugees as they begin their new lives in this country.”

The contract that Catholic Charities has with USCCB covers about 60% of the expenses of the Refugee Resettlement Pro­gram. The remaining 40% is funded through private donations.

Morrison said that each refugee receives only $1,125 from the government when they arrive in the U.S. With that they have to pay rent (and make the security deposit) for their new apartment and purchase items such as a mattress. Refugees also must repay their travel expenses to the gov­ernment after six months of their arrival. Since the refugees have such limited funds to work with, Catholic Charities relies heavily on partnerships with parishes and individual volunteers to help.

“The parishes and parishioners have been so eager to provide assistance and support to these families once they arrive,” Morrison said. “They help with finding an apartment, donating furniture, providing transportation to appointments and serving as mentors, just being someone they can call when questions arise.”

As they look to the future, Morrison said she and her staff are taking things one day at a time.

“At this point, the message we are getting from the U.S. State Department is that the refugee resettlements are still happening during this period,” Morrison stated. “There have been changes day-to-day, but right now we are still considering our program active.”

She said, “If the 120-day moratorium on refugee resettlement is reinstated, we as an organization are committed to retaining the infrastructure that we have built over the past 75-plus years. We are confident that something will happen that will allow us to continue our ministry.”

Morrison said there are ways that individuals can help support refugees during this time of uncertainty.

“I encourage anyone interested to learn more about the plight that refugees face. Their journeys will shock, amaze and inspire you,” she said. “You can also volunteer to support refugees that are already living in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. We always need volunteers.”

Donations to support the program can also be made by visiting the agency’s website:

While she said she understands concerns some people may have over national security, Morrison expresses confidence in the screening process the U.S. State Department conducts for refugees.

“I think this time is a real opportunity for us to raise awareness and help educate people about the screening and vetting process,” Morrison said. “The process is very thorough, very extensive. There’s a min­imum of 18-24 months of screening, background checks, interviews and other measures before a refugee is approved for resettlement.”

Morrison said when she and her staff at Catholic Charities initially learned about the president’s executive order they were devastated for their refugees, especially the 59 currently in the pipeline for resettlement.

“Fifty-nine might just seem like a number to some, but we have these individual’s profiles, we have the information on their families and what countries they are fleeing from, what challenges they have faced. So we feel like we already know them,” Morrison reflected. “We are committed to this ministry and remain confident that we’ll eventually be able to assist these brothers and sisters of ours from around the world in the way Christ intended us to.”


Tracy Morrison, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.