Emma Winters: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s Communications Manager. In this episode, you’ll hear me speak with Joan Rosenhauer, the Executive Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) – USA. The Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve, and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, that they may heal, learn, and determine their own future. Joan previously served as Executive Vice President of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), where she led the organization’s outreach, marketing, and communications. She also spent 16 years working with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, where she most recently served as the Associate Director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development. In this episode, we discuss JRS’s advocacy, changes to the US refugee and asylum systems under the Biden administration, and how JRS has adapted its programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s our conversation.
Emma Winters: Welcome, Joan.
Joan Rosenhauer: Thank you for having me!
Emma Winters: Many of our listeners at CMS are familiar with JRS and its work, but for those who may not be, could you say a little bit about JRS’s mission and the scope of the organization?
Joan Rosenhauer: Sure. Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization serving refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Our mission is to accompany, serve, and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced people so that they can heal, and learn, and determine their own future. We were founded by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in 1980 in response to the humanitarian crisis of the Vietnamese boat people. I’m sure Father Pedro Arrupe, who was the Superior General of the Jesuits at the time and founded JRS, would never have believed that 40 years later, we would be working in 56 countries and trying to meet the educational, health, and social needs of roughly 800,000 displaced people. We hire and serve people of all faith traditions or none. We work in detention centers, border settings, urban settings, and refugee camps. We live and work alongside the refugees, accompanying them on their journey.
I want to highlight that we do serve a range of forcibly displaced people: refugees, internally displaced people, asylum seekers, other migrants. I should acknowledge that I often use the term refugee to capture all of that. It’s not a very technical way of using the term. Because it’s in our name, I often use the term refugee when referring to all the people that we serve.
Just to say a word about JRS-USA, we work with our global JRS network to provide support through funding, oversight, monitoring, evaluations, and other services. We focus significant efforts on mobilizing people in the US and giving them an opportunity to join our mission. We also serve forcibly displaced people here in the United States. We have one program, our Detention Chaplaincy Project, that ensures people of all faiths have the opportunity to practice their religion. We provide pastoral care to meet the needs of non-citizens detained by the Department of Homeland Security in five US detention centers around the country.
We’re just starting a program in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez that will focus on mental health and psycho-social support for people who are seeking asylum in the United States right now. Most of them are in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs), but they will be trying to come into the United States. We’ll provide mental health, psychosocial, and legal services.
Finally, we do a lot of advocacy on behalf of displaced people at home and abroad, bringing their needs and priorities to Congress and to other US government officials. That includes organizing supporters around the country to raise awareness and to advocate on behalf of refugees.
Emma Winters: Wow, so quite a lot. I’m recalling a JRS event in November when President Biden committed to change the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 125,000. He’s recently reiterated that promise for Fiscal Year 2022. But, those programs saw some pretty steep cuts. Some of the resettlement agencies were damaged by those cuts under the Trump administration, so what do you think it will take for those resettlement agencies to scale up and meet those goals? How do we get there from where we are right now?
Joan Rosenhauer: You’re raising a really good point. It is going to take a lot. I should be clear: JRS-USA is not one of the resettlement agencies in the United States, but we do work closely with them. They have had to scale back because the numbers were cut so dramatically over the course of the Trump administration from an average of 80,000 resettled refugees down to the most recent cap President Trump provided for 2021, which was 15,000. It is going to take some time to scale back up and get to a point of being able to resettle 125,000 refugees in a given year in the United States, but it’s a wonderful direction to be taken. The other thing that we have to be aware of is that the pandemic does create an added layer of complexity. We will have to make sure that there are public health protections in the process that protect both refugees and the US population. Testing availability, vaccines, and all of that is in question as long as the pandemic is in our midst.
Emma Winters: Could you describe a couple of the things that the Biden administration has done so far to protect refugees? I know that there was a recent executive order and that there’s been some action on Migrant Protection Protocols. Could you describe more about what’s going on right now?
Joan Rosenhauer: Sure. We’re very pleased to see the direction. We hope for a lot more as the weeks and months unfold. It’s important to remember – and I know your audience understands – that people who are seeking asylum in the United States are fleeing for their lives. They are making the case that they are subject to persecution, violence, and that their lives are at risk. What we’ve had is a system that has not allowed people to come into the United States – that’s the Migrant Protection Protocols, which is one dimension of what has kept people in Mexico who are seeking asylum. The Biden administration has already suspended new enrollments for the Migrant Protection Protocols, but of course, that means that there is a great backlog of asylum cases. We don’t have the capacity to move those cases along in as speedy a manner as we would like. We’re really hoping for some investment in the capacity to take those cases and move them forward.
President Biden has also reversed the travel ban on Muslim majority countries that has impacted so many refugees around the world. It kept many of them from reuniting with their families, some of whom are in the United States and some of whom are not. We know that there are plans, and we hope that they will carry out those plans and take a lot of other steps. There are discussions on the US Citizenship Act of 2021, which will try to modernize the US immigration system, creating more safe and legal channels for people to seek protection and making sure that there is a path to citizenship for current non-citizens, including Dreamers and those under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). There are lots of policies that are in the works that we definitely support. We also support providing additional funding in the Northern Triangle Countries, to help address the reasons that people are fleeing.
There’s a whole package of programming. The beginnings have been established, and others are in the works that we would continue to support and encourage.
Emma Winters: I wonder if you could say a little bit about how the work of JRS changes, from administration to administration or as the political context changes. Obviously, the mission is the same. The ultimate goal is the same. I mentioned earlier that President-elect Biden at the time, participated in a JRS event. It’s hard to imagine Trump doing something like that. Could you explain how your advocacy and your work changes to meet the moment?
Joan Rosenhauer: I would say that that happens in a number of different ways. As I’ve traveled around the world for our programming, I always meet people whose goal is to come to the United States. That’s their hope. That’s their dream. It makes a difference that people now feel like there is more of a possibility. Now, the percentage of people who have fled their homes around the world who will actually be resettled in the United States, even if the United States accepts 125,000, is very low. But, there is some possibility that people can do that, and it allows us to work with them to see how that might become a possibility.
Here in the United States, we’re definitely looking at ramping up our work at the US-Mexico border, because we know that there will be a lot of people to be served. As I said before, the programming that we’re focusing on is legal services and mental health and psychosocial support. Everyone who flees their home, no matter what their age, has suffered incredible trauma. Most people have heard the terrible stories of what people experience, especially women and children trying to come from the Northern Triangle countries to the US-Mexico border and seek asylum. Helping them to come to terms with their trauma and try to relieve some of that stress that they’re going through is critical for everything else they hope to do as they go through the asylum process in the United States.
The fact that there are so many possible policy changes means that we really want to focus on advocacy. We want to let members of Congress know that people in the United States support policies that are more welcoming of migrants and are more supportive of US policy and global policy as it relates to asylum and providing safety and protection for those who are fleeing their homes. We have always been doing a lot of advocacy. Many of the Trump administration policies we opposed. Those were important advocacy efforts to undertake. Now we see a lot of possibilities for improvements in US policy and we definitely want to be involved in the advocacy there.
Emma Winters: I have another question. There’s a little bit of a lead-in, but there is a question at the end. CMS did a recent study about the US Refugee Admissions Program, which surveyed refugees, former refugees, and folks who work in the resettlement agencies and other support agencies. One of the biggest challenges that the refugees themselves reported was that there were false understandings and misperceptions about refugees in the news and that there were false understandings of misperceptions about refugees in their community. CMS has done a lot of research about the refugee resettlement program in the United States. Across the board and among all nationalities, refugees are very successful. They become US citizens and homeowners and English speakers. They’re very entrepreneurial. They start businesses. The US refugee resettlement program has a lot of vetting and screening built into the process, the most intense scrutiny of probably anyone coming into the United States. And yet, the misperceptions persist and present a challenge for refugees as they’re trying to integrate. Could you say a bit about some of the advocacy JRS does? How do you try to challenge those misconceptions about refugees? How do you talk to folks who are not there yet with their understanding?
Joan Rosenhauer: First of all, I would like to thank you for that study because it’s very important. It creates a really important voice for refugees and helps all of us who want to work with them and to support them. We couldn’t agree more how important it is to tell their stories and help people to understand that they are wonderful people who do amazing things. Like any other group, of course, there are some not-so-great people, but that’s not particular to refugees. That’s particular to human beings and any group.
One of the things that always strikes me when I travel around the world is that I meet people who have been through experiences that I couldn’t imagine going through. Yet, they are so hopeful and resilient. They form community, and they support each other. They are amazing, wonderful people. I often think to myself, If I had been through threats to my life, if I had to travel through very difficult circumstances, if I had been through that, would I have been able to be the kind of proactive, resilient, hopeful person that I’m meeting? They are building lives for themselves, for their families, and doing what they can to make sure that their children have a decent education. I couldn’t agree more that sharing those stories and helping the general public understand what wonderful people the vast majority of refugees and displaced people are is critical.
We try to do that all the time. We use all of the tools at our disposal: our website, our social media, our mailings. We are always seizing opportunities to tell those stories, and I really hope that your listeners will be encouraged to do everything that they can to take in those stories. We do work with, especially in the Jesuit community, with schools, parishes, universities, and other institutions to try to get those messages out. I hope all the listeners will play a role in that. We all have social media presence. We can all share those stories. There are stories of refugees here in the United States. We have wonderful people that have been educated by JRS in their original country of settlement after they’ve fled their homes, and they’re able to come to the United States to [further their] education. We hope that everybody will play a role in sharing their stories.
I want to uplift one way we’ve done that recently. We’ve co-published a book called Dying to Live: Stories From Refugees on the Road to Freedom. It tells the stories of a range of different refugees and their experiences in different phases of the process. It’s the refugees speaking about themselves and telling their stories in their own words. It’s a terrific book, so I lift that up as an option for people to learn more about how amazing refugees are.
Emma Winters: Thank you. Changing gears, I’m thinking about COVID-19. It’s affected all of our lives more than we could ever have conceived of almost a year ago. Could you speak about some of the work of JRS International and how it’s trying to adapt its programs to be safe but to still support people during this global pandemic?
Joan Rosenhauer: We were not an emergency relief agency. We often provide programs like mental health and psychosocial support, lots of education programming, and livelihood programming. Because people suddenly lost their ability to support themselves and are so restricted in what they can do and how they can try to go out and make a living, we had to adjust our response to provide emergency relief and distribute food, other emergency supplies, and hygiene kits. In many camps and urban areas (most refugees are in urban areas), there’s often limited access to handwashing stations. We had set up handwashing stations.
It’s such a different experience. When we’re told to wear masks and wash our hands, we buy masks and wash our hands at the many sinks we have at home. People who are displaced can’t do that; they can’t buy masks and they often don’t have places that are convenient for washing their hands. So we responded to all of that, as well as raising awareness, so that people understood about the virus and how they could protect themselves and the importance of masks and social distancing.
In addition, we had to adapt our education programs and our livelihood programs. For some of the vocational training programs that we are doing, we used WhatsApp for classroom groups. For mental health and psychosocial services, we used cell phones so that people didn’t lose the support that they have been getting from our staff and our program systems. We had teachers who were sending short videos and voice recordings to try and keep classes going, but also there are a lot of places where that’s not possible because people have very limited access to the internet. In some cases, we used camp radios to teach. In some places, there was a learning packet and then some time on the camp radio where students could listen. We also used it to train parents so that they knew how to help. It’s the same thing that we’re experiencing here. Parents are learning to be the teachers, except they don’t have screens and they don’t have WiFi. They have camp radios and printed learning packets.
One additional thing I want to lift up is a question that we’re focusing on right now, which has to do with vaccine equity. As I’m sure many of your listeners know, more than 80 percent of refugees are in developing countries. What we know about the vaccines and the treatments for COVID-19 is that the wealthy countries have the capacity to purchase lots of the supply, leaving the poorest countries at the back of the line. Within those poorest countries, displaced people are at the back of the back of the line. We have to call attention to the fact that we truly are all in this together. People who are displaced, people who do not have resources and access to healthcare regularly, they have to be a part of the plan to get vaccines out in a fair and equitable way that takes into consideration their vulnerabilities. They can’t just be at the end of the line. People who are at high-risk within the displaced communities also have to be given serious consideration. There are some countries that have already said that only their citizens will be getting the vaccines. It’s something we all have to work at: to make sure that the most vulnerable people in the world are not left out of the vaccine process until the very end. The costs have been so high on that community.
Emma Winters: Could you share a story, maybe about an individual or a family who JRS has supported and what those services meant for them?
Joan Rosenhauer: Sure, a couple of things come to mind. Speaking of the masks and COVID, I thought that it was touching when one of my colleagues who works at JRS India was telling of a camp where we have been training people to be seamstresses and tailors. When the pandemic broke out and they learned that masks were essential for everyone, they came to our office and said, “If you can provide the material, we will sew the masks and ensure that the refugees in the camp have masks.” They also said, “We want more material than that, because we want to make sure we can provide masks for people in the community surrounding the camp to make sure that everybody is protected. We know that we’re all in this together, and we want to make sure we help everybody.”
It struck me when I heard that, the understanding that we’re all in this together and that we all need to protect each other by wearing masks and following the protocols. It was more insightful than a lot of people about this pandemic. So that was one story that came to mind.
I imagine many people who are listening recall when the world was focused on the genocide in Darfur, in Western Sudan. I remember at that time people were all horrified, and it hadn’t been very long since the genocide in Rwanda. We were all saying “No, this cannot happen again.” The world was focused on it, and it was on the news every night. The world was paying attention then, but those folks who fled Sudan are still living in refugee camps in Eastern Chad. The world has forgotten about them for the most part. But they are still there trying to build their lives, and it’s a real struggle. When I visited, the typical temperature was 112 degrees. It is a very remote area. There are very few resources, but we are trying to provide education. Again, I experienced really remarkable people.
One woman had gotten married young and was starting a family in her early 20s. She and her husband agreed that she should finish her education so that she could become a teacher. She would get through high school so that she could become an early childhood or elementary educator. The only way she could do that is if she had childcare. One of the things that JRS was setting up at that time was a childcare center. Because she was able to use that, she could go and nurse her baby at the breaks in the class every day. She continued with her education. That young couple planned to get an education together. Once she got her education and became a teacher, it was his turn to then go through high school. It’s just an example of how resilient, remarkable, and determined people are. They are committed to building a life for their children and their families.
In that particular case, there was also a teacher who also had a new baby, and she was able to take advantage of the daycare center. These are the ways that people commit to building a life for themselves, getting their education, and supporting their families. A little bit of help setting up a daycare center can make all the difference.
Emma Winters: Those are fantastic stories, and I think we can all learn a lot, especially the message of how we’re all in this together with COVID. I hope that that’s a takeaway for people. It’s a takeaway for me, and we can learn so much from these folks. Before you go, could you tell us about how people can become involved with JRS? And what can folks do to support refugees?
Joan Rosenhauer: Well, the first thing I’d go to is something we’ve already talked about, which is to share the stories. Use your means of communication, social media, whatever you are involved in, and even the Thanksgiving table. Wherever you are, you can share the stories of refugees. We have lots of stories of remarkable, amazing people on our website at jrsusa.org. Help share those stories because as we’ve said, and as the CMS and RCUSA study showed, getting out those stories is critical.
We do have a simulation for groups. If you’re involved in a parish or a school or your community, you can get a sense of what refugees go through. It doesn’t come close to what refugees go through, but it gives a taste. We have adapted it to a virtual experience through Zoom, so that’s another thing that people can do to learn more about the experience of refugees.
We also have groups on college campuses, in schools, parishes, community groups or religious communities. We have the JRS Refugee Action Team, with lots of resources to help form a group that is going to mobilize the rest of your community at key moments to support refugees.
We have another program called Any Refugee, which is a lot of fun. It’s a way that you can write to a refugee. It’s not setting up a pen-pal relationship. What you do is you write a little note to a refugee on a postcard. People often do this in groups at a family holiday or in schools. Then, you can send the postcards to JRS-USA in our Washington office, and we bring them with us when we travel. I’ve done this, and it’s so remarkable. First of all, refugees are thrilled to find out that there are people in the United States who are thinking about them and writing to them. Especially in recent years, they’ve gotten the impression that the United States isn’t very supportive of refugees, so getting a message that there are a lot of people in the United States who want to support them is meaningful. Secondly, most refugees, once they’ve gotten to a certain point in their education, are trying to learn English. These cards go around a class, and everybody wants to read every card because it’s a way to practice their English. That’s another thing people can do. They can write to any refugee.
A key thing that I want to lift up is advocacy. I mentioned a number of policies that are coming up, but there are also some opportunities to weigh in on policies related to international assistance, which will be critical because most refugees are in developing countries. We want to make sure that UNHCR is supported by the United States and to make sure that foreign assistance is provided to support refugees. This includes both bilateral support – between the United States and a country in particular – and multilateral education programs, like Education Cannot Wait which provides 40 percent of the education support for refugees in a crisis situation. There’s lots of important advocacy coming. We’re having a Virtual Advocacy Day on April 15, where people from all over the country will be setting up virtual meetings with their members of Congress and their staff. I hope you’ll come to our website and signup and get involved and set up a meeting with your member of Congress.
I’ll just lift up one other thing for people who are Christian. We have a Lenten program that we’re calling 400 Minutes for Refugees. We’re asking people to spend 10 minutes a day during the 40 days of Lent providing various kinds of support, which could be prayer, sharing the story, or doing some advocacy. There are a variety of resources to help people for 10 minutes every day during Lent, so I hope people who are looking for a way to engage their faith will come to our website and look for that.
Emma Winters: Thank you so much, Joan. I really appreciate your time today!
Joan Rosenhauer: It’s great to be with you! Thank you for having me.
Emma Winters: If you want to learn more about the Jesuit Refugee Service, please visit: jrsusa.org. CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by Danny Duberstein and The Music Case. For more podcasts like this one, you can follow CMSOnAir on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. To find a full transcript of this episode or get more information on CMS’s research, publications, and events, visit us at cmsny.org.
The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
This report analyzes the US refugee resettlement program – known as “USRAP” (the US Refugee Admissions Program) – leveraging data from a national survey of resettlement stakeholders conducted in 2020. The survey examined USRAP from the time that refugees arrive in the United States. The survey’s design and questionnaire were informed by three community gatherings organized by Refugee Council USA in the fall and winter of 2019, extensive input from an expert advisory group, and a literature review.
This report finds that USRAP serves important purposes, enjoys extensive community support, and offers a variety of effective services. Overall, the survey finds a high degree of consensus on the US resettlement program’s strengths and objectives, and close alignment between its services and the needs of refugees at different stages of their settlement and integration. Because USRAP’s infrastructure and community-based resettlement networks have been decimated in recent years, the Biden administration’s main challenges will be to rebuild and revitalize the program, educate the public on it, and try to regain broad, bi-partisan support for it. The report also points to specific ways in which USRAP’s programs and services should be strengthened....
In an Executive Order signed on February 3, 2021, President Joe Biden promised a thorough review of the US refugee admissions program as well as the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) under which Afghans and Iraqis endangered by their association with the US government are admitted. He also announced that the United States will resettle 125,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2022 and consult with Congress to increase this year’s admissions quota as a down payment. These promises offer hope to thousands of refugees who have been awaiting resettlement, often for years and still more often in precarious settings. Fulfilling this promise will not come easily, however. The new administration has scant time to rebuild a program that the Trump administration sought to destroy....
This paper offers an historic review of the US refugee resettlement program. It spans the colonial era, to the establishment of the first distinct US admissions policies for persons fleeing persecution in 1917, to the creation of the formal US Refugee Admissions Program in 1980, and to the Trump administrations’ denigration of and attempts to eviscerate the program. It proposes ways that a new administration can rebuild this crucially important program and put it on more secure footing. In particular, it recommends that a new administration:
- Reframe the discourse on refugee resettlement to emphasize its central importance to the nation’s identity and the way it serves the national interest.
- Rebuild the capacity of the federal government to administer the program and the badly depleted community-based resettlement infrastructure that is central to the program’s success.
- Hold emergency consultations with Congress to increase refugee admissions in Fiscal Year 2021, and consult soon after the inauguration with international, state and local, and non-governmental partners to plan FY 2022 resettlement goals, including a robust admissions ceiling and budget.
- Reform and reinvigorate federal consultations with states and localities to ensure their receptivity, capacity and support for refugees, and eliminate the current veto power of states and municipalities over resettlement in their jurisdictions.
- Explore legislative fixes to the refugee admissions process and attempt to depoliticize the process by setting a “normal flow level” that does not require an annual Presidential determination.
- Join the Global Compact on Refugees, which seeks to expand the availability of durable solutions for refugees, and encourage other nations to follow the U.S. example of resettling larger numbers of refugees.
This paper examines the integration, achievements and contributions of 1.1 million refugees resettled in the United States from 1987 to 2016. It does so in three ways. First, it compares the household, demographic and economic characteristics of refugees that arrived between 1987 and 2016, to comparable data for non-refugees, the foreign-born, and the total US population. Second, it compares the characteristics of refugees by period of entry, as well as to the foreign-born and total US population. Third, it examines the characteristics of refugees that arrived from the former Soviet Union between 1987 and 1999, measured in 2000 and again in 2016. By all three measures, it finds that refugees successfully integrate over time and contribute immensely to their new communities. Perhaps most dramatically, the paper shows that refugees that arrived between 1987 and 1996 exceed the total US population, which consists mostly of native-born citizens, in personal income, homeownership, college education, labor force participation, self-employment, health insurance coverage, and access to a computer and the internet. The paper also explores the successful public/private partnerships — with a particular focus on Catholic agencies — that facilitate refugee well-being and integration, and that leverage substantial private support for refugees. Overall, the paper argues that the United States should expand and strengthen its refugee resettlement program. The program has advanced US standing in the world, saved countless lives, and put millions on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration....