US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Something nice to say about Arizona and immigration: Refugees welcome

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Arizona has been the center of the immigration debate for years. A goodly number of the unauthorized entries are across its perilous desert. So anti-immigrant activists cheered when troops were sent to the border and fences were built. When that didn't stop the migrants, they pushed through SB1070 that would have made it a crime to be in the state without papers. But that brought no relief, since the federal government has gone into court to stop it.

A drug war rages in northern Mexico and might spill over the border. Migrants still brave--and perish in--the desert. The self-styled "toughest sheriff" of Maricopa County (Phoenix) conducts in-your-face factory raids. The bravado of Mexican youth protesting in the streets of Phoenix only covers the fear of the immigrants. They are stealing away in the wake of SB1070.

It's hard for immigration advocates to find any good amid the fear and demagoguery preceding the elections. But the news in the New York Times surprised us--it reports Arizona treats refugees kindly. The state welcomes and settles more immigrants per capita than larger states. And the support system for the refugees is among the best.

Relief activities of state agencies and private groups are well coordinated, aiding the new comers to get jobs and housing and to learn English. The help to the refugees is neither begrudging nor controversial.

Last year Arizona welcomed about 5,000 refugees--minuscule compared to the 400,000 undocumented in the state. An irony reported by The Times is that some resettled refugees--a few who themselves traversed national borders unauthorized--share the popular attitudes toward the law-breaking migrants.

The United States has been a leader in refugee resettlement since World War II. We collaborated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in relocating German displaced persons from East Europe and extended efforts to help other East Europeans as the Iron Curtain clanked down. Later the country opened to those fleeing civil wars or oppressive regimes in countriest such as Cuba, Indonesia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Africa.

A refugee is defined as a person who fled across an international border because of persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, political activity and have a reasonable fear of returning home. Congress usually authorizes visas for 75,000 and sends funds to states that have taken them in to help at the transition stage. The states then contract with charities and volunteer organizations like Catholic Charities and local parishes to provide services and mentor the refugees.

Some refugees enter the country, occasionally illegally, and simply ask for asylum. A few years ago immigration judges had extended asylum to African girls who had fled female circumcision and last year to women who had fled spousal abuse.

While we can be proud of our help to refugees, we should have no illusions. Our policy is political, and the politics often shows. Some Haitians were give political asylum under the Duvalier dictatorships--Papa Doc and Baby Doc-but asylum would not be extended to the boat people fleeing Tonton Macoutes thugs. In 1996 Congress cut Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) to refugees not yet citizens. This is a payment in lieu of Social Security, though congress votes each year to provide some aid. Some people who had entered the country as political refugees have been sent back unwillingly when the politics in the home country changed to United States' satisfaction.

As a nation, we could be more generous to refugees. Still it's nice to know Arizona rises above its current xenophobia toward Mexicans to welcome a diverse group of refugees and takes good care of them.