June 20, 2001
We, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, at our summer meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, during the fiftieth anniversary year of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and of the founding of the International Catholic Migration Commission by the Holy See, call upon our national leaders to strengthen U.S. leadership in global refugee protection. As a nation rich in material blessings, we have a moral obligation to assist and protect one of the most vulnerable of populations, the refugees.
The Catholic Church holds a special interest in the plight of refugees, persons recognized by the international community as persecuted and in need of security, and asylum seekers, persons who enter a nation and request protection from persecution. The child Jesus and the Holy Family were themselves refugees, having fled to Egypt to escape the terror of King Herod. Christ taught us that in the face of the refugee we see Him: " For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink; a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:35) In response to our Lord's call, the Catholic Church in the United States, through the work of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and our Catholic dioceses and parishes provides life-sustaining assistance, resettlement services, and legal services to refugees and asylum seekers from across the globe.
We are proud of our nation's role in the past fifty years in protecting refugees, having welcomed and resettled close to five million into the United States since 1951. Of this number, the Catholic Church has assisted more than one million refugees to resettle in the United States. Refugees and asylum seekers from around the world come to the United States to escape persecution and enjoy the fruits of our democratic system of government. Having endured violations of their basic human rights and other hardships, and thankful for the opportunity to live in peace and security, they contribute their hard work and talent to our communities and help to strengthen the diverse cultural fabric of our nation.
Notwithstanding our nation's historic generosity in welcoming refugees, we are concerned with recent trends which indicate that the United States' commitment to refugee protection is waning. Since 1992, refugee admissions into the United States have dropped by forty-two percent, while U.S. overseas assistance to refugees has failed to keep pace with inflation. Further, U.S. law and policy impose more barriers to asylum seekers, including interdiction, detention – even of women and children–denial of work authorization, and summary exclusion of some who enter the United States requesting protection. Also, "detention" often means placing seekers of asylum into jails with U.S. criminal populations.
Correspondingly, contributions to protection efforts from other nations have diminished over the past decade, especially in the willingness of foreign governments to accept refugees for resettlement and to approve asylum requests. At the same time, the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide has increased dramatically, from eight million in 1981 to more than fourteen million in 2001. Eighty percent are women and children.
During this anniversary year and as we enter a new millennium, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to refugee protection and assistance and begin to reverse this disturbing trend. Our nation can and must do more for refugees, through increased support for refugees overseas and increased admissions of refugees into the United States. For those who request protection on our shores, our nation must reform the asylum system to allow all persons who articulate a credible fear of persecution to receive adequate legal counsel, to present their case promptly before an impartial judge and not to be unnecessarily detained. Asylum seekers who are detained suffer from isolation. They should be given access to religious and social services as well as contact with the wider community.
Most importantly, our nation and the international community should seek solutions to the root causes of population movements. Without continued initiatives toward conflict resolution and sustainable development in regions of instability, refugees and asylum seekers inevitably shall become a permanent part of the global landscape. Only through long-term efforts to share world resources more fairly and to uphold international human rights and humanitarian law standards will the world significantly reduce the number of persons who flee persecution in their homelands.
As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Catholic Migration Commission, we urge our leaders to re-examine U.S. refugee policy and more aggressively address the circumstances which give rise to refugees and asylum seekers. It is vital that our nation exert moral leadership within the international community in order to ensure that all nations meet their commitments to refugee protection. By so doing, we serve our national interest and act as an example to other nations. Perhaps more importantly, we honor the democratic values we espouse, continue a tradition of compassion which has long characterized our nation, and offer a beacon of hope to suffering refugees and asylum seekers around the world.