Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, Reaffirms Jesuit Refugee Service’s Commitment to Justice

November 17, 2016 - In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, issued a letter reaffirming the mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees in the United States and throughout the world:

Dear Friends and Fellow Americans,

It has been just over a week since the divisive presidential campaign came to its surprising conclusion. We have taken this time to consider soberly the implications of the upcoming change of administration, and its possible effect on the refugees and forced migrants which Jesuit Refugee Service/USA seeks to serve.

If all the draconian measures bruited about during the campaign were adopted by the Trump administration, the picture could look dire indeed. At its most extreme, it would include the exclusion of all Muslims, including Muslim refugees, from the United States for an extended period of time, and the marginalization of our Muslim fellow citizens. It could also mean the suspension, or diminishment, of the entire US resettlement program, now a vital, life-saving route to protection for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, while some new system of “extreme vetting” is devised to replace the system of extreme vetting which is in fact already in use. It could mean shutting the door even more firmly against the entry of asylum seekers looking to us for protection, and the expulsion of thousands, perhaps millions, of hard working, law abiding people living peacefully among us.

It could worsen the lack of due process already affecting child asylum seekers, and it would very likely mean the rescinding of the status now afforded to the children of undocumented parents who are here through no fault of their own. Even more troubling, it could reinforce the scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers as the cause – rather than the victims – of terrorism, violence, and all manner of economic and social ills.  It could promote fears and prejudices that run counter to the most valued American traditions of tolerance, inclusiveness, and welcome to the newcomer here at home. In short, it would run counter to justice and generosity toward the vulnerable worldwide.

How shall JRS/USA respond to this situation?  How shall we respond to the specter of fear, selfishness, and lack of compassion that appears before us? First, let me say clearly that the divisive election campaign and its surprising outcome can only serve to reinforce JRS’s commitment to our mission to accompany, serve, and defend the rights of refugees in the United States and throughout the world. This commitment is absolute.  It stands on the foundation of the teachings of the Church that we are all equally children of God and are related to each other in equal dignity as one family.  In this context, our commitment to support and to speak out for the most vulnerable people, giving comfort, companionship and education to those otherwise forgotten and bringing the voice of the voiceless to the seats of power is unshakeable. It is in fact even more important at this uncertain time.

On the positive side, we are enheartened to note that support of the American community for just and generous refugee policy remains very strong.  Across the country, people of good will have responded to the negative political climate with increased offers of financial donations, volunteer engagement, and political action.  Support in Congress for humanitarian assistance abroad likewise remains strong. This leads us to hope that as the new Administration takes up the mantle of government and in the process begins to understand better the complexities of these issues, there may be opportunities to move from incendiary rhetoric toward more reasonable and responsible policy outcomes. 

With this hope in mind, JRS will seek to engage with the new administration to preserve and strengthen the gains made in refugee protection during the past administration. We urge the new administration to continue U.S. resettlement for the desperate victims of persecution, violence, torture and trauma who look to us for protection. We call upon the incoming President to refrain from making further negative and stereotypical comments about Muslims, Mexicans, and others who are seeking refuge in the United States. We urge members of the U.S. Congress to support legislation that strengthens our country’s commitment to the protection of refugees and vulnerable migrants and to maintain U.S. financial support to refugee programs and organizations overseas.  

We will also reinforce our partnership with Jesuit universities to preserve and improve legal protections for child refugees entering our country in search of asylum, and will oppose rolling back existing protection for the children of undocumented American workers. We will do our utmost to ensure that the progress made in the recent UN refugee summits to address the present world refugee and migration crisis is not lost through lack of U.S. will to carry these processes forward.  In partnership with our JRS international offices and in close cooperation with many faith-based and secular allies, we will continue to bring the needs and aspirations of the refugees we serve to the attention of U.S. policy makers to give a human face to refugee crises and to recommend practical actions for their alleviation.

The road to the achievement of full justice and adequate protection for refugees is a long one, and we can expect setbacks along the way. Nonetheless, we believe there is always value in dialogue, always the possibility of positive change. In our increasingly diverse country, the reality of refugees in today's world can be a great symbol for us, a reminder that we are all members of our one human community, created equal, indeed God's children and so our brothers and sisters. Let us recognize in the refugee not a threat but a revelation, not a danger but a promise for a more just and humane world.

With gratitude for our mission and your support of it,
Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.
Interim Executive Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

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