ALLOUEZ — At its apex, the Diocese of Green Bay’s refugee resettlement office processed more than 300 refugees a year into northeastern Wisconsin. Although the diocese no longer resettles as many refugees (40 refugees were resettled in 2016 and Catholic Charities does continue to work with refugees and immigrants on family reunification and immigration issues), former diocesan resettlement officials were saddened by President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order suspending refugee resettlement.
“People react and people overreact sometimes to the imagined danger and I’m afraid that we’ve got a lot of rhetoric out there right now, kind of one-liners thrown out there, which are divisive and inaccurate,” said Barbara Biebel, who served 42 years on the diocesan staff, including 35 years as diocesan director of Refugee, Migration and Hispanic Services. Biebel was instrumental in bringing thousands of refugees to northeastern Wisconsin. For many years, the diocese was a leader in resettling refugees from around the world.
The executive order halts the refugee admissions program for 120 days, bans all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, reduces the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States this year from 110,000 to 50,000 individuals, and indefinitely suspends the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
On Feb. 3, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an injunction against the order.
Shortly after its release, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as individual U.S. bishops, issued statements opposing the ban.
“Today, more than 65 million people around the world are forcibly displaced from their homes,” said Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration. “Given this extraordinary level of suffering, the U.S. Catholic bishops will redouble their support for, and efforts to protect, all who flee persecution and violence, as just one part of the perennial and global work of the church in this area of concern.”
Biebel believes the current climate of fear regarding refugees, especially those from the Mideast, is based on opinions and not facts. “People should educate themselves on the reality versus the hype,” she told The Compass Feb. 2. “Where is the evidence that we have terrorists” entering the country as refugees?
“To vilify a whole group of people who happen to be Muslim I think is just evil,” she said. “We can’t expect Muslims to be making this case. They need the Christian community, the Jewish and agnostic community to speak out. Wrong is wrong. Hype is hype and let’s not fall for it.”
The diocesan refugee office was established in 1975 by Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, who led the diocese from 1968 to 1983. His involvement in assisting refugees dated back to the 1940s, when he was field director for relief operations in the Middle East, India and Africa for the U.S. bishops’ War Relief Services, later renamed Catholic Relief Services. He helped resettle more than 500,000 European refugees (then called displaced persons) and assisted in drafting the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.
In a tribute to Bishop Wycislo in 2009, Ken Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief services, recalled the important role then-Fr. Wycislo played in helping Polish refugees who were arriving in Iran after fleeing Soviet forced-labor camps in Siberia.
“The refugees, most of them women and children, along with some elderly men, were ill and emaciated,” wrote Hackett. Fr. Wycislo, still serving in the Chicago Archdiocese, “was sent on behalf of the American Catholic community to provide lifesaving aid. He organized temporary centers in Iran to provide immediate assistance and later oversaw the resettlement of these refugees to East Africa, the Middle East and a small village in north-central Mexico.”
“It was this emergency response that gave birth to the agency that would become Catholic Relief Services. And Fr. Wycislo, who later became a bishop, was a pioneer in that effort,” noted Hackett.
“Bishop Wyscislo was one of the first to sign up and say, ‘We will do what we can to help resettle the people and help them start over with new lives,’” said Biebel, who oversaw the next wave of refugees into the United States in 1975, coming from Vietnam.
“By and large, the people we resettled, they’ve done extraordinarily well,” said Biebel. “They have become contributing members of society. … We just rarely ever got negative feedback that these folks are not doing well.”
During her tenure with refugee resettlement, Biebel said the diocese welcomed Vietnamese, Hmong, Poles, Bosnians, Cubans, Somalians, Sudanese and other nationalities.
Marcia Kellner, a refugee resettlement coordinator from around 1986 to 1996, said community response to refugees was often met with apprehension. When Vietnamese refugees began arriving in the United States, some residents opposed their arrival because of the Vietnam War.
“We had a lot of people whose sons had been killed” in the war, “and few distinctions were being made. Anyone from (Southeast Asia) was different. They wanted to know who these Asian people were and what kind of drain they were going to be on the community,” said Kellner.
“I was asked to assist or take the lead in refugee resettlement (for the Vietnamese),” said Biebel. “It was something that needed to be done. It was in our faith. Every night on TV, you would see people dragged out of the water, running from tanks. It was just horrendous. So I said, yes, I’ll do that.”
The diocese helped resettle approximately 350 Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
A similar reaction happened when Hmong refugees, tribal villagers from Laos, began arriving. Kellner said many Americans did not understand that Hmong refugees were targeted by the Vietnamese because of their alliance with the U.S. military and the CIA.
“These folks had bull’s-eyes on them because they allied with us during the war,” said Kellner. She likened these Hmong refugees to the Iraqis who served as interpreters to U.S. soldiers during the Gulf War and who were being denied entry into the United States due to the recent executive order.
Once people understood the role Hmong soldiers played in assisting the U.S. military, attitudes changed, said Biebel. “Particularly when we started doing publicity and interviews and letting people know that there was another war going on, a ‘Secret War.’”
The Secret War involved Hmong fighters in a 15-year covert military operation backed by the CIA. An estimated 100,000 Hmong fighters died during this operation.
During the mid-1980s, the Diocese of Green Bay instituted a billboard campaign that promoted resettlement. Billboard messages included, “Refugees are our newest immigrants. Welcome them,” and “Refugees bring more to their new country than a bundle of belongings. Einstein was a refugee.”
With every new wave of refugees, especially those with different skin color or language, it took time to ease the xenophobic fears, Biebel said in an interview with John LeDoux, diocesan archivist, in 2006.
“My interest in being a historian has been constantly renewed by the need to remind people of what probably really transpired in their ancestors’ lives,” she said. “Unless they came from England or Ireland, they probably arrived speaking some other language.”
Biebel said Catholics need to realize that welcoming refugees is part of a proud American tradition.
“The Catholic Church was long persecuted in this country because we were the church of immigrants. We were the church of the poor. We didn’t own the factories, we supplied the labor,” she said. “And now that Catholics have had, since the Second World War, such a surge in our education and breaking down the parochialisms of our lives and our neighborhoods, let us not be caught in the anti-immigrant backlash which affected Catholics. Let’s do better, let’s learn from that.”
Welcoming the stranger is a belief shared by the church and this country, Kellner said. “I’m a big fan of the Statue of Liberty and what she says. I would hope and pray that we could all be brave enough to stand up to those principles,” she said. “This acceptance (of refugees) is asked of us through our country and our faith. It certainly feels like what’s in my heart.”
Seeing Americans protest the immigration and refugee ban has been encouraging, said Biebel. “To see that people in the streets, just regular folks, have taken up the cry and say, ‘This is not right, this is un-American, this is not Christian’ … I have been so pleased to see that.”
She urged Catholics to learn about refugee resettlement, including the vetting process, and to contact legislators. “Express how you feel about this. Be specific if possible, if you know somebody who is a refugee, let it be known because if we sit back and don’t make an outcry for justice, what do we have next?”