STEVENSVILLE — Refugees have been legally resettled throughout the United States with few problems for decades, according to the Rev. Sid Mohn, director of Interfaith Action of Southwest Michigan.
Finding homes for these refugees was made more difficult after President Donald Trump signed an executive order last fall, requiring states and local municipalities to give written permission before refugees can be resettled. Michigan is among the more than 40 states that have given written consent for refugee resettlement.
But in January, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution saying that only refugee youth with no guardians are welcome to settle in the county.
The resolution goes on to say that “this consent does not extend at this time to the placement of arriving refugee families and adult individuals within the county.”
“It’s somewhat chilling to be a resident of a county that says – we don’t want any refugees here,” Mohn said. “... This is the first time there has been an endeavor to federally regulate how individuals lawfully admitted to the United States, where they can live. If you or I want to move to Indiana, we move to Indiana. If a legal permanent resident of Illinois decides he wants to move to Michigan, he can’t.”
County Administrator Bill Wolf and county board Chairman Mac Elliott were unavailable to comment on this issue.
According to the meeting’s minutes, commissioners pulled the resolution off the Jan. 9 consent calendar and, after discussion, passed it unanimously. The only discussion mentioned in the minutes is that the commissioners were worried about homelessness.
Mohn said Interfaith Action represents more than 30 faith-based communities that includes Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“This is very much a faith-based issue. Jewish, Muslim and Christian Holy writings indicate that there’s an obligation to welcome the stranger, to treat the immigrant with justice,” he said. “For Christian and Jewish communities, Jesus, as a Jewish infant, had to flee with his family to Egypt to avoid persecution and was, in fact, a child of a refugee family.”
Mohn said there has been a lot of confusion and misinformation about the resettlement program. Interfaith Action is hosting a three-part educational series, which starts this Thursday, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the refugee act and to educate people about the program. Discussions will include who the refugees are, why they are protected internationally and how they are screened before entering the United States. He said the discussions will be in a talk show format so the audience can be included.
The second segment will be Thursday, March 19, and the final segment will be Monday, March 23. All of the meetings will start at 6 p.m. and be held in the Lawrence Room of the Lincoln Township Library in Stevensville. They are scheduled to run until 7:30 p.m. each night.
Leading the first segment on the national context, this Thursday, will be Jane Trejo, manager of refugee programs for Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. Besides the U.S., she has worked in the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan and Mexico and is a member of the Michigan Committee for Refugee Resettlement. A refugee will be with Trejo to discuss his experiences.
On March 19, the local context will be discussed by Christine Suave, director of Welcoming Michigan, a program of the Kalamazoo-based Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She previously served in the Peace Corps and will discuss immigrant inclusion in the state.
The March 23 segment will feature Shadi Martini, a refugee from Syria and executive director of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. He will use the refugee crisis in Syria as an example of what is happening with refugees globally.
Mohn said that the refugees in the program are kept outside the United States for 18-24 months while they undergo an extensive screening process by the United Nations and various U.S. agencies.
“Of any population in the U.S., refugees are the most screened,” he said.
To be considered a refugee, Mohn said the people must be outside their home country and unable to return because they are likely to be jailed or killed due to their race, religion, political opinion or social group.
Historically, he said 100,000 refugees a year have been allowed to be resettled in America until the Trump administration cut that number to 18,000. He said various faith-based entities are in charge in each state of finding new homes for the refugee families, with the federal government giving them cash and medical assistance for the first few months so they aren’t burdens on the local communities.
He said refugees are usually resettled in areas with low unemployment.
Mohn said it is an erroneous stereotype that refugees don’t work and are a burden on the economy.
Shortly after the commissioners passed the January resolution, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction suspending the executive order, saying that allowing states and local governments to block the resettlement of refugees is contrary to the intent of the 1980 Refugee Act.
“We would hope that if the county ever took another vote in the future, that the county would vote to be welcoming to refugees,” Mohn said.