After moving from Iran with her family more than a decade ago, Zahra has settled into life in the greater Los Angeles area. She found meaningful work, serving as a refugee employment case manager at the Interfaith Refugee and Resettlement Service, or IRIS, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. There she daily assists others who, like her, fled ethnic or religious persecution, who merely seek the hope of peace, of personal safety and of fulfilling their dreams for a fresh start, a new life.
“They need help with jobs, housing, transportation. We provide them support services for whatever they need, to go to work or to school, to help with any barrier they have to find employment so they can reach self-sufficiency,” she said.
But as the nation and courts wrestle with a second ban on travel to the United States from Iran and five other majority-Muslim countries, the 43-year-old mother of two, who asked that her real name not be used, feels anything but safe or settled.
“My brother was among those last families that were able to leave Iran and go to Vienna” as a first leg of the journey to the United States, she said. “Their flight was the last one. After them, no one was able to travel to Vienna and when they got there, that first order came out.”
That initial travel ban was ruled unconstitutional and, consequently, unenforceable, yet her brother Hamid (not his real name) and his family face an uncertain future in Vienna.
“It was a very bad week,” recalled Zahra. “We didn’t know what is going to happen, how to register them, to start the process. What was going on in our minds, it was crazy. I couldn’t even imagine: if they don’t register, what should they do? Are they going to return them to Iran? And how is this going to be?”
Like Zahra, they are Christian, and fear retribution or even death if returned to Iran. The family fled “because it is difficult living there because of so much (religious) discrimination,” she said.
The travel ban’s ripple effect spans both continents. “It’s terrible,” Zahra told The Episcopal News recently. “You know that your family is in a problem and you don’t know how you can help them. You feel that it’s hopeless. You think that you have no power. You don’t know how you can help them and you don’t know what is going to happen to them. It’s like your heart is breaking … it’s a terrible feeling.”
The constitutionality of a second, revised federal travel ban has again been challenged. The states of Hawai’i and Maryland both sued to halt it; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal expects to hear arguments in May.
Meanwhile, Zahra and Hamid — and many others — wait.
Travels bans, uncertainty a ‘major hit’ to IRIS, refugees
Meghan Tumilty Taylor and the IRIS staff are hunkering down for an “extremely difficult” six months, at least.
Taylor, IRIS executive director, predicts that the net effect of the travel bans — regardless of upcoming court decisions — and an imposed federal immigration ceiling will result in a 65-percent reduction in refugee arrivals for the agency’s 2017 fiscal year, which ends in September.
By the end of March, IRIS had resettled 209 refugees; their expected goal was serving 660 in 2017. “But, if I were to make a guess, we’d be lucky if we resettle 300,” Taylor said. Nationally, the numbers of expected refugee arrivals has been reduced by nearly half, from 110,000 to between 50,000 and 60,000, if refugees are still allowed to enter the country.
IRIS receives $950 per refugee arrival. The majority are religious minorities from Iran, Afghani refugees, Iraqis, Syrians and minors from Central American countries.
Resettling fewer refugees means a budget shortfall, and possible eventual staff reductions. And then there is the human toll of fear and uncertainty among clients, staff and the public alike.
“We have cases overseas that are completely on hold,” Taylor said. “Everything has slowed to a crawl, which is really frightening for refugees overseas and for family members here, waiting to be reunited with their relatives.
“We have a lot of family members coming to our office, worried about what’s happening to family members overseas,” Taylor said. “They were hoping they’ve been rebooked, for all those whose flights were cancelled after the initial executive order. But not all their flights have been rebooked.”
Essentially, IRIS is funded on a per capita basis after refugees have arrived; much of the agency’s preparatory work is unfunded. “Our budget is 100 percent tied to that, so when there is a halt or reduction on refugee arrival, our budget takes a major hit,” she said. After the arrivals, IRIS continues to work with refugees, offering cultural orientation and English as Second Language classes, and employment, transportation and other services.
“We’re a family reunification-based agency, so a lot of the work we do is pre-arrival and unfunded until after the refugees arrive.” The agency works with relatives who are U.S. citizens or green card holders who might be former refugees who petition to bring their relatives to the U.S.
“We have no funding other than our per capita in order to maintain the capacity to continue to do that,” Taylor said.
The travel bans have made it “impossible to plan in an environment like this because things just keep changing,” Taylor said. “We are waiting for final direction from our three national agencies, which are Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Church World Refugee Services, on our exact revised projections for the remainder of this year.”
Central American refugee children continue to cross border
IRIS also administers a Central American Minor Affidavit of Relationship Program. It allows the biological parents of minor children in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras to access the refugee program as an alternative to the dangerous journeys many child migrants take through Central America and Mexico to be reunited.
“They [the minors] are riding trains to our borders, just to be put in detention when seeking asylum,” Taylor said. “This was the state department’s response to an alternative route for those children coming here to join parents whom they probably haven’t seen for a very long time.” She added that the program is unfunded.
“We are forbidden by the State Department to file any kind of fees, so we rely on our steady stream of refugees in order to maintain capacity to continue to file those CAM OAR applications,” she said.
Federal chaos has also fueled uncertainty with the public. “I just want to highlight how refugees contribute to our communities,” said Taylor, a member of the diocesan sanctuary task force, Episcopal Sacred Resistance. “They have proven to be dedicated employees, business owners, homeowners, students, community leaders. They are a vital part of our community,” said Taylor, “Obviously, at least here in the Diocese of Los Angeles, it’s pretty apparent immigrants and refugees are part of the makeup of who we are and nationally as well. It’s a false idea that refugees are a threat.
“IRIS works to save the lives of refugees while at the same time ensures the safety of the U.S. They go through a series of security screenings that lasts for years and years. If there’s any doubt that a refugee is a threat, they are not admitted into the U.S., period. It is extremely frustrating the way in which they’ve been portrayed by this administration. Refugee resettlement is meant to save the lives of people fleeing the same terrorists it seems this administration is claiming they’re a part of.”
She said IRIS needs volunteers for welcome teams, tutoring, airport and other transportation services, a speaker’s bureau and mostly to help raise funds.
“There’s no amount too small,” Taylor said. “Fundraising really is important for us right now. We’re hoping to stay strong.
But, she added, “Everyone at IRIS is trying to be optimistic. We’re trying to focus on the cases we have on the ground and make sure we’re serving everybody that gets to us. For every refugee that arrives, we are so grateful. There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from the community; but we need fundraising more now than ever before.”
More Sacred Resistance, teams in Ojai
As the Sacred Resistance movement strengthens and expands, some congregations, like St. Luke’s, Long Beach, have vowed to host those in need of sanctuary.
Others are hosting “Know Your Rights” workshops and civil disobedience trainings and the diocesan task force co-sponsored an “Interfaith Day of Prophetic Action: Standing with Immigrant and Refugee Families” on Maundy Thursday at La Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles that received widespread media coverage.
The Rev. Francisco Garcia, co-chair of the diocesan sanctuary task force, said its members have been working to equip local congregations and deaneries, with legal and other resources depending on their context, as well as encouraging participation in the Maundy Thursday event (see related story here).
The task force also has consulted with other dioceses across the Episcopal Church, from Maine to San Joaquin, to offer resources and assist in sanctuary-related efforts.
The Rev. Greg Kimura, rector of St. Andrew’s, Ojai, said the church has developed teams who actively visit day labor venues, passing out two cards: one is a “know your legal rights,” and the second is his business card.
“It has my cell phone number on it, so if there’s an ICE raid or if ICE comes to somebody’s home, they can contact me and I will start a process of getting rapid response folks there, so they can help,” Kimura told The Episcopal News.
The former executive director of the Japanese American National Museum, a civil rights institution, Kimura hit the ground running when he arrived in Ojai a few months ago.
After spending the past five years at the museum, which “exists in large part to make sure the Japanese American World War II interment camp experience never happens again,” news of a Muslim deportation or travel ban spurred him to immediate action.
He began by taking coffee to the day labor venues and engaging the workers there. “We’ve been building relationships with the undocumented community, trying to be institutionally a leader of the community, not just the faith community, but the broader community as well, by offering training and being known as a place welcoming and safe and just doing our bet to reach out and be friendly and be good neighbors,” he said.
To further those efforts, he said, the church recently erected a Spanish-English language banner saying “Welcome, we are glad you are our neighbor,” that has been received favorably.
Rapid response teams will help ensure that ICE agents “have a legal warrant, signed by a judge, and that if somebody ends up being detained, the incident is documented and videotaped or photographed on a cell phone and uploaded to a couple of databases, including the ACLU’s website.”
Additionally, St. Andrew’s is opening the church as a safe haven, “especially on days when the undocumented community believes that ICE makes its trips through the region,” he said. “We’ve had people come and spend some time in the church during those days.”
A “Know Your Rights” workshop and a Rapid Response training are planned at the church, located at 409 Topa Topa Drive, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday, May 7 for the larger community “because there hasn’t been training in the region.” Liz Kurtz from IRIS has been invited to talk about the agency’s programs “so they can learn the whole process of achieving refugee status and about the work IRIS does and the challenges they are facing in the current climate.”
To those who express reservation about sanctuary movement participation, Kimura reminds them that the church has long participated in the rotating Ojai Valley Family Shelter, hosting the homeless twice weekly.
“I tell them we’re already doing sanctuary work and have been for years. We have guests who are in this community who’ve been welcomed for dinners and the breakfasts that are served and for staying overnight who are undocumented,” he said.
He said the church is attempting a response that can be manageable and sustainable and replicable for smaller and suburban churches “because I really feel like it’s the thing that’s going to get the broader support, not just the larger urban churches.”