(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original version to include information about President Trump's revised executive order on March 6)
Catholic Charities of Buffalo has provided assistance and care for incoming immigrants and refugees in the Western New York area for decades now. But now that program is in jeopardy after President Donald J. Trump signed a revised and controversial executive order that halts incoming refugees for 120 days, and severely restricts immigration from six countries.
"We were founded in 1923, and in our original incorporation papers, it specifically says that of the several things we do, we will work with immigrants," said Dennis C. Walczyk, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities. "This service that we provide goes back to our beginnings, and this recent action will jeopardize the program."
One week after entering office, Trump approved an executive order that banned nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, and all refugees from any country for four months. The executive order was approved suddenly, leading to confusion and protests at airports, and was overturned when challenged in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A revised version of the order was signed by the president on March 6. It lifted the travel ban for Iraqi citizens, but the six other countries remained. The refugee admission program continued to be suspended for 120 days. Permanent U.S. residents and those with a work visa are exempted from the travel ban, and language specifying preferential treatment be given to Christian refugees has been eliminated.
"The executive order of the president impacts refugees who have been the U.S. for two to three years, and are now fearing deportation," Bishop Richard J. Malone said in a recent "Consider This" video. "Contact your senators and congress members and urge them to pursue legislation that would halt the effects of the executive order and support refugee resettlement."
Days before Trump's first executive order was signed in January, Niyonzima Focus arrived in the United States. A 27-year-old native of Congo who has lived in a Ugandan refugee camp since he was 6, Focus immediately noticed two things: It's colder in Buffalo, but he is enjoying significantly more freedom in the states than being confined to a refugee camp.
"Life was OK (in Uganda), but not as OK as it is in the United States," said Focus, who speaks English. "In the U.S., you have freedom of speech and the ability to conduct business."
The process to come to the United States started for Focus when he was 18 years old. He was interviewed several times by various agencies, talking about his life story and why he wanted to leave his previous country. By most accounts, the vetting process for a refugee takes about two years, and in the case of Focus, far longer.
"It feels so good because I was waiting a long time," he said of the experience. "There's a bright future ahead. Right now I feel that America is the best."
Focus already has some family members in the area to help him adjust to American life. In the weeks following his arrival, he went to several appointments with Catholic Charities to establish himself here, received medical examinations and care, and just started taking English classes. Once his paperwork is in place, it will take about a year for Focus to receive his Green Card. In addition to learning English, Focus will be required to find a job. He will also begin the process of becoming a citizen, which usually takes five years.
Catholic Charities purchased the former Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Buffalo's West Side to become the headquarters of its immigration and refugee program. Catholic Charities helps clients of the program become acclimated to the United States, its laws and culture, teaches them English and job training skills, helps them find employment, offers medical and dental care, and more. The facility on Herkimer Street offers a one-stop shop for services for refugees and immigrants to Buffalo.
"Catholic Charities has developed the capacity to bring refugees into the country," said Sister Mary McCarrick, OSF, diocesan director of the social service agency. "When you do that, you have a commitment to help them get started. We meet them at the airport, we have an apartment set up for them, and we enroll their kids in school. The parents will be enrolled in our English-education program, we'll help them find a job. They usually do (find a job), because these people will do anything."
"We've been able to centralize the services we provide after we purchased the former Nativity on the West Side," Walczyk said. "It's a core service of what we do, consistent with the Gospel message to welcome the stranger."
The Trump administration's desire to halt the refugee program, at least temporarily, puts the work of Catholic Charities in danger. Since Fall 2015, 867 refugees were resettled by Catholic Charities in the Buffalo area, and 407 are from four of the seven banned countries. Since Catholic Charities receives federal aid based on how many refugees and immigrants it handles as clients, stopping refugees from coming into the United States would also impact the agency financially.
"We have the capacity in that location for job finding, acculturation, language, dental and medical," Sister Mary said. "If all refugees are kept out for three or four months, then there's no income for that program. We would be at a dramatically reduced capacity, so how long could we keep the employees working?"
Many of the agency's former refugee clients have become employees for Catholic Charities, helping new arrivals adjust to the states just as they were helped. The Trump administration's recent actions have not only clouded the program's financial future, but have also created fear and anxiety about their future in the United States.
"The biggest thing that we're seeing is fear," said Bill Sukaly, who works for the program. "Fear that it might affect their status (in the country), and fear that they will not be able to reunite with their families."
Catholic Charities has kicked off its annual campaign drive, hoping to raise $11 million this year. But in a highly politicized time, the agency's immigration and refugee program has created several angry calls to Sister Mary. There have also been calls encouraging the agency to continue its work.
"This is the one controversial thing that we do," she said. "I do try to engage in a conversation. The reason why the Church is growing in Western New York is because the refugees are Catholic. I'll say, 'I'll be glad to meet you for Mass at Our Lady of Hope or Holy Cross Parish if you're interested in seeing this.' So far, nobody has taken me up on it."
Bishop Malone will keynote a Refugee Ministry Convocation at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora on Saturday, March 25, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Registration is available through voice-buffalo.org/events until March 13.