President Donald Trump suggested on Monday that outrage over his order to suspend America’s refugee program came largely from “Democrats and the opposition party,” but some of the fiercest criticism has actually been voiced by religious organizations and groups more traditionally associated with Republicans.
Executives from eight evangelical Christian organizations sent a letter to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday urging them to consider revoking the executive order, which also restricts travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
“As evangelical Christians, we are guided by the Bible to be particularly concerned for the plight of refugees,” the letter began. It later added, “We believe the refugee resettlement program provides a lifeline to these uniquely vulnerable individuals, and a vital opportunity for our churches to live out the biblical commands to love our neighbors, to make disciples of all nations, and to practice hospitality.”
There are nine national organizations that work closely with the U.S. government to resettle refugees, and five of them are faith-based, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). Linda Hartke, president and CEO of LIRS, told VICE News that prior to Trump’s order on Friday, it was not unusual for her group to resettle 400 or more refugees a week in communities across the U.S.
“We had an awful lot of churches in local communities who have been getting apartments ready, getting them furnished, making signs to meet people at the airport, preparing to give refugees the welcome they deserve in this country,” Hartke said. “That effort is lost now.”
While Trump is not especially well-known for his piety, support from Christian groups — particularly evangelicals — was key to his victory over Hillary Clinton in the November election. Pence, meanwhile, has described himself as a “born again, evangelical Catholic” and is considered a stalwart of the religious right.
Hartke said LIRS and the other faith-based groups involved in refugee resettlement have requested a meeting with the president and his senior staff to discuss the refugee program and “the value it brings to America,” and she’s hoping their religious affiliations will help bolster their cause.
“This policy just tears families apart,” she said. “It’s just not reflective of American values. We talk about ourselves as being a country that emphasizes family and freedom, and these actions are just entirely counter to that focus.”
Trump says his order, which also halves the total number of refugees the U.S. will resettle in the coming year from more than 100,000 to 50,000, is intended to boost national security by reviewing and strengthening the screening process for refugees. But refugees already undergo a thorough vetting process that takes 18 to 24 months. The U.S. has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975, and only 0.00062 percent of them were linked to acts of terrorism, which killed a total of three Americans. There have been no acts of terrorism linked to refugees since stricter screening measures were enacted after 9/11.
In their letter to Trump, the evangelical groups noted that the current screening process for refugees is “extremely thorough” and more intensive “than the vetting that is required of any other category of visitor or immigrant to our nation.”
“We don’t need to choose between safety and security for Americans,” Hartke added, “and being a country that provides refuge for those fleeing war terror and persecution.”
Trump has said he wants to prioritize the resettlement of Christians from Syria and other minority religious groups who are subject to persecution because of their faith, but the U.S. already admits a significant number of Christians. Of the nearly 85,000 refugees who were resettled in the U.S. last year, 44 percent were Christian and 46 percent were Muslim.
Aleksander Milch, a senior staff attorney at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), another faith-based refugee resettlement organization, said Trump’s ban could be unconstitutional because it seems to favor Christians.
“It discriminates very obviously against people who are Muslim,” Milch said. “It violates the establishment clause, potentially, in setting preference for one religion for another.”
Milch called Trump’s ban “beyond chilling” and said it “undermines our international obligations. It’s extremely frightening.”
Hartke seemed equally disturbed, noting that many of the refugees most affected are children who were close to reuniting with family members already in the U.S. Under those circumstances, she said, she expects the outcry from religious groups to grow in the coming days and weeks.
“The longer the president lets his executive order, which is cruel and unnecessary, stand,” she said, “I think the louder the voices will be asking that it be revoked.”