Sunday, June 25, 2017


This Summer, Jeff St is looking at ways we can be part of engaging in solidarity with those who need sanctuary. As part of this, we've had a large Sanctuary Stone set up in the church meeting space (or "sanctuary," if you prefer...) and today we added smaller sanctuary stones for us to take out into our daily world, to remind that we need to be about sanctuary wherever we are.

As another part of this push, we've had various people offer reflections about immigrants and their reality, based upon people we personally know. Today, Maria (who works with immigrants/refugees) shared the following...

My current work is with the refugee resettlement program. A program that was formalized in the U.S. in 1980 and you used to never hear much about in the news. Today it has become a political issue. The U.S. originally planned to welcome 110,000 refugees this fiscal year. The Executive Orders by the Trump administration slashed that number to 50,000. While the courts eventually blocked this part of the order from being enforced, the uncertainty led to a major slow down in processing refugees overseas and their arrival in the U.S. Refugee resettlement agencies have lost funding, laid off staff and some have closed down. It has also left many refugees wondering if they are still welcome here. Or if they will ever be able to reunite with their family members still overseas. 

Does the United States want us?

This fiscal year the U.S. will likely resettle around 70,000 refugees, but the ceiling will probably be set at 50,000 next fiscal year, the lowest a president has ever set. And that is being optimistic. And this is happening in the midst of the world’s worst refugee crisis. More than 65 million people have been displaced from their homes, including over 21 million refugees outside of their country. Over half who are under the age of 18. It is hard to wrap your head around these numbers. Less tahn 1% will have the chance to be resettled in any given year. Millions are living in uncertainty – either in refugee camps or in countries where they are unable to obtain legal immigration status.

For those that make it to U.S., I think the story of a colleague and friend of mine from Afghanistan shows how complex our immigration system is. He came to the U.S. in September 2014 on a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, – a status available to Afghani or Iraqi nationals who worked for the U.S. army or the U.S. government for at least one year, and because of this work, their life is in danger. 

The paperwork to get this visa isn’t easy – which probably goes without saying. He spends his free time helping others who are still in Afghanistan navigate the visa application process. My colleague came by himself and was originally resettled in California. He moved to Kentucky because his fiancé was on a student visa and attending college here to become a nurse. He worries for his family back home in Afghanistan every day. 

Because of his work for the U.S. government, his whole family is in danger, including his parents and siblings. They have received threats from the Taliban. But there is no way for him to sponsor them to come to the U.S. until he becomes a naturalized citizen – which can happen at the earliest in September 2019. He and his fiancé wanted to get married in the U.S. in the presence of their parents. Her parents were able to get a vistor’s visa to come here. His parents were denied twice. My colleague explained if they think you have a reason to overstay your visa in the U.S., they will deny your application. So my colleague and his fiancé traveled to Afghanistan to get married despite the danger of going back. They did not want to get married without their parents there. The wedding was in late December and they went home for a month. When he told me the dates he was planning on traveling, the first thing I did was google “when does Trump get inaugurated”. He was getting back a few days before. Okay, it is safe to buy your plane tickets, I joked. Thinking I was overreacting. Well, the first travel ban was issued the first week Trump took office. While Afghanistan wasn’t on the list of seven countries, the executive order caused chaos at airports around the world and my friend does have a Muslim name. I was glad he was back in the U.S. safely.

His wife recently graduated and passed her boards. She has a job lined up at a local hospital – however, her student visa is about to expire and she needs an employer to sponsor her to obtain a work permit. It doesn’t seem like that will work out. Now they are trying to figure out how to maintain her immigration status in the U.S. so she does not become undocumented. They are trying multiple things. Starting an asylum application. 

My colleague applying for permanent residency for her now that they are married and both currently have status. These first two options will take years. So the third option is applying for a master’s program so she can get a student visa again. A recent consult they had with an immigration lawyer told them they could have applied for her permanent residency two years ago and might have it today, but that is not the advice they got two years ago from another immigration lawyer. The system is confusing to navigate – and they speak fluent English, which most refugees and immigrants that come here do not. So they are filling out multiple applications and paying multiple fees, while worrying about their families back home each and every day. I didn’t know what to say to my friend after the bombing in Kabul last month. I said I hope that your family is okay. He wrote back thanks, my family is okay, but hundreds of families are not. It hurts so much. If my family is okay this time, they might not be next time.

This is a very small glimpse into what our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters experience. A big lesson I have learned in my years of working with this population is how much privilege I have 1. because I am white, and 2. because I am a U.S. citizen. No one gets to choose where they are born. I have heard so many amazing and heartbreaking stories over the years. I could never share them all.
Refugee. Immigrant. Asylum Seeker. Undocumented. These are all immigration statuses but they do not define a person. We are all human beings and a citizen of the same world, just trying to survive and do what is best for ourselves and our families.