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At Heart Of Refugee-Resettlement Debate, A Rift Between Church And State

Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin (right) shakes hands with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence following a meeting at the Statehouse on Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings
Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin (right) shakes hands with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence following a meeting at the Statehouse on Wednesday in Indianapolis.

The resettling of Syrian refugees in the U.S. has become a political and religious flashpoint. On Friday, for instance, Texas dropped its request for a federal court to immediately block Syrian refugees from entering the state. A Syrian family, including two young children, is now expected to arrive in Dallas on Monday.

By contrast, in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence asked the Catholic Archdiocese in Indianapolis to turn down a family of Syrian refugees expecting to settle in that state later this month. At a meeting Wednesday with Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin, Pence expressed security concerns over the resettlement.

"They had a frank exchange of views," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski tells NPR's Lynn Neary. Wenski serves on the migration committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Wenski explains: "I think the governor was saying, 'Don't take these people,' and the archbishop was saying, 'Think it over, governor, and don't stand in the way of a humanitarian and Christian and American solution to the plight of this family.' "

Wenski believes that the Indianapolis archdiocese will proceed with its plans to bring the Syrian family into the state.

"I don't believe the governor has the legal authority to prevent that from happening at this point. But I think the archdiocese of Indianapolis would be happier to have the governor's OK or approval," Wenski says.

"Because basically the church has no interest in introducing a family that has already been traumatized, by being uprooted in their own homeland, into a situation where they would find hostility or danger."

The office of Gov. Pence tells NPR it has not received word on a final decision from Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

Interview Highlights

On his answer to the security concerns of refugee-resettlement opponents

What we're trying to tell them is to take a deep breath. Because, first of all, to scapegoat these refugees is not very American.

And if ISIS wanted to infiltrate people into the United States, they could do so without using Syrian refugees, especially when the Syrian refugees are undergoing almost a two-year process of vetting that is quite thorough. It is not the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are vetting them; it's the State Department and Homeland Security and whoever they require to help them in doing the vetting process.

On whether the family in Indiana will be accepted elsewhere if blocked from settling in that state

Well, I think that would be the alternative. Certainly we would look through our network ... through our dioceses and Catholic charities and find a suitable location for them.

The bishops' conference, under its program of migration and refugee services, has settled hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past 30 or 40 years. I think some Syrians have probably already come to the United States in the past years.

I know that the archdiocese of Indianapolis wanted to go forward, but as I said earlier, it's nobody's interest to introduce traumatized people into an environment that would be hostile to them and perhaps even put them in danger.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff