In early October, a single mother, her two young children and her sister left a refugee camp in Thailand and arrived at an airport in Bangkok to be flown to the United States.
“They were about to board the plane and somebody says they can’t,” Ricardo Cisneros, director of behavioral health for Catholic Charities, said. “They put them in a bus and took them back to the refugee camp.”
The federal government shutdown has had an impact upon the Milwaukee archdiocesan Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program and, so far, roughly 15 individuals from refugee camps around the world with scheduled arrival times have had their new lives in Milwaukee put on hold until the shutdown is resolved.
Executive director of Catholic Charities, Salvatorian Fr. David Bergner, said a moratorium has been put in place for the program until Oct. 28.
“Our staff can’t do the job they were hired to do, which is resettle refugees,” Fr. Bergner said.
About 70,000 refugees enter the U.S. every year and roughly 300 of those settle in Wisconsin, according to Fr. Bergner, who explained it takes about six months from the time a refugee is selected to that person actually landing in the U.S.
“They finally win the lottery to come to the United States,” Fr. Bergner said. “In the case of the 15 that were supposed to be here, all their paperwork is complete, all they need is a plane ticket.”
Fr. Bergner said Catholic Charities’ annual revenue for the program is $848,000. Of that total, $619,000 comes from the federal government; the rest is from state government and other benefactors.
Until the shutdown ends, no refugees can come into the country legally.
“One more day in a refugee camp is not pleasant for anybody,” Cisneros said. “It is not just a financial burden … it is a human problem.”
Catholic Charities have been receiving refugees from the Congo, Thailand, Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), Afghanistan and Iraq.
“That is a program that directly depends on the state department,” Cisneros said. “All the arrivals that were set up to happen in October are not happening.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a major resettlement agency, along with Catholic Charities USA have pushed for an end to the shutdown.
“We receive daily notice to put pressure on politicians to reach an agreement,” Cisneros said. “This isn’t just affecting agencies and institutions, parks, but real people with real problems.”
One of the individuals scheduled to arrive in Milwaukee in October is a 79 year-old woman traveling alone from Thailand.
“She has all sorts of physical problems,” Cisneros said. “They were telling us she may have pneumonia, she needs to have her eyes checked, she needed a wheelchair.”
Fr. Bergner said this has affected other refugee programs in different dioceses around the nation.
“Our elected officials are aware of the Catholic Charities position nationally as advocates for our refugees,” Fr. Bergner said.
Cisneros said October is the busiest month for the program because it is the start of a new fiscal year for the federal government.
Once the shutdown ends, Catholic Charities will have to make up for lost time with those who were delayed.
“We’re hopeful when funding resumes, money will continue to flow,” Fr. Bergner said.