Fort Worth

As refugee arrivals drop, some ask if Fort Worth still ‘welcomes the stranger’

For decades families uprooted from other countries by war, natural disaster and religious intolerance have started anew in this urban, conservative bastion, which has given its support to GOP presidential candidates in every election since 1964.

Now President Donald Trump’s plans to drastically slash the number of refugees the country resettles is pitting his policies against a top priority of some of the reliably-red area’s most loyal Republican supporters — its massive faith community.

Tarrant County is listed among the top three Texas counties where refugees are resettled. It’s already experienced a 71.7 percent drop in the number of refugees arriving in the area as a result of the administration’s new America First policies — which include stricter vetting policies for applicants seeking asylum.

“As a Christian and as a pastor, I respect government authority,” said David Daniels, senior pastor at the Pantego Bible Church in east Fort Worth, which worked with refugees from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009 to establish a worship center for about 150 people.

“I think the United States has a history of diversity and I believe that we as a country can afford to handle an increase of refugees into our country,” added Daniels, who said his church continues to welcome African Christians who want a place to worship.

Next year the White House plans to cap refugee admissions at 30,000— the lowest number accepted since the refugee program was created in 1980. The numbers come as part of Trump’s plan to put a focus on domestic spending instead of international, and add stricter security standards for those coming into the country for asylum.

Trump carried Tarrant County with 52 percent of the vote in 2016. Though the area remains one of the largest urban conservative strongholds in the country, his margin of victory was much smaller than other recent GOP nominees.

“I believe in the highest level of security, but I also believe in the greatest expression of generosity,” Daniels said, explaining that the Bible teaches that one should “welcome the stranger.”

“Scripture should always shape your policies not the other way around,” Daniels said. “The Bible actually gives instruction on how to treat refugees.”

Weighing the costs

Asked about the new resettlement cap, Cheryl Harris, an adviser at the State Department, pointed to the $8 billion the U.S. spent on humanitarian assistance worldwide in fiscal year 2018 — more than any other country.

“This includes funding from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA),” Harris noted in a statement.

She also pointed to Trump’s recent address to the UN General Assembly, in which the president said “the most compassionate policy is to place refugees as close to their homes as possible to ease their eventual return to be part of the rebuilding process. This approach also stretches finite resources to help far more people, increasing the impact of every dollar spent.”

Without weighing in on the new resettlement levels, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who visited the White House for an economic summit this month, said in a statement to the Star-Telegram: “Our community, with the help of our friends at organizations like Catholic Charities, has always and will always be welcoming and compassionate toward the refugee population. I find our refugee neighbors to be an important fabric of our community.”

Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas said: “It’s unconscionable to set the goal at 30,000 refugees for FY19 for the richest nation on Earth at a time the world faces the worst displacement of vulnerable people in history, with more than 68.5 million refugees displaced worldwide.”

The lower refugee ceiling comes as harsh language against refugees characterizes the politics.

“It is racist,” said Ashley Paz, a school trustee on the Fort Worth school board, who noted that Fort Worth schools include refugees among the 86,000 students and have worked to ensure all students feel welcome. “Anti-refugee rhetoric is racist rhetoric.”

‘To love my neighbor better’

Waves of refugees have been living and working in North Texas — from Vietnamese who settled here, mostly in Arlington and Haltom City, after the Fall of Saigon 40 years ago to the tormented Somali Bantus who have been rebuilding their lives in south Fort Worth since 2005.

Refugee Services of Texas, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth and World Relief Fort Worth work in Tarrant County with churches, schools and communities to help refugees make their way amid new American surroundings.

“The numbers are lower, but that hasn’t changed the welcoming spirit of welcoming refugees to Tarrant County,” said Shalaina Abioye, director of refugee and veteran services at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, which also manages the arrivals of refugees under a cooperation with the federal government.

North Texas has been one the nation’s most welcoming sites for refugees, according to Jana Mason, head of the U.S. government relations team with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Washington, D.C.

“They want to work and they want their kids to go to school,” said Mason, who recently spoke about refugee resettlement at SMU. She added that refugee communities have revitalized areas with businesses and brought cultural diversity.

Daniels, the pastor at Pantego Bible Church, said parents worship in Swahili and Kirundi languages while children worship with English-speaking children.

He said some Christians in the church experienced a conflict between their political party and the Bible. Often political rhetoric is a lot louder than the church, he said. Still, the overwhelming majority of people chose “the high road of loving your neighbor.”

Others told Daniels that despite their personal politics, they tell themselves: “I will dare to try to love my neighbor better.”

‘No new arrivals’

Deacon Tracie Middleton of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth said the concept of welcoming the stranger is also part of their Biblical teachings.

“Everybody at some point has been the stranger in some context or another,” Middleton said, adding that the practice of showing hospitality to others is also at work throughout Fort Worth and the county. She said churches and businesses work to help refugees learn how succeed in America.

Middleton said communities help refugees find jobs, sign up for schools and learn English — things that can be perplexing for newcomers.

“If I were to be dropped in the middle Switzerland, I wouldn’t be able to navigate easily without some help,” Middleton said, adding: “It’s really difficult to try to make your way in a completely new place.”

Middleton said several years ago she was among church members who asked the government to increase the refugee ceiling from 75,000 to 100,000. When that happened, church members in Tarrant County volunteered to welcome more refugees.

One church worked on setting up apartments for families and collected home materials and goods to make the apartments comfortable and liveable, Middleton said. Some church members discussed the possibility of creating a conversational English class for people with no knowledge of the language.

Another idea was to pair up congregation members with medical expertise with a refugee who needed help with a chronic medical condition such as asthma.

Then Trump’s travel ban hit and the volunteers’ work seemed for naught.

“It got deflated by all of these policy changes that undermined us,” she said, explaining that the evolving situation with Trump’s travel ban in 2017 kept them in limbo.

Then there was an opportunity to help because one Syrian family arrived, she said, adding: “a little window opened up.”

“We haven’t really been able to do very much of that because of the decrease in the number of people arriving,” Middleton said.

At Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington a welcome team trained and prepared so they could pick up refugees arriving at airports and provide them a welcome dinner. But they are still waiting for the chance to welcome a stranger because the refugees they were supposed to help never arrived.

“They were really disappointed,” Middleton said. “No new arrivals.”

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