Reflections on life, meaning and purpose

Welcoming the Stranger

Joan Rosenhauer is the executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. Rosenhauer leads the organization’s efforts in the United States to accompany, serve, and advocate for refugees and displaced people in over fifty countries around the world. As an executive vice president of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Rosenhauer led the organization’s outreach, marketing, and communication efforts. Prior to joining CRS, Rosenhauer spent sixteen years with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where she most recently served as the associate director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development. Commonweal contributing writer John Gehring spoke with Rosenhauer about the Biden administration’s immigration policies, global Covid vaccination efforts, and women’s leadership in the Church. This interview has been edited for clarity.

John Gehring: Last November, President Joe Biden addressed your organization in remarks timed to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Jesuit Refugee Service. In that speech, he pledged to reverse Donald Trump’s evisceration of our refugee system and promised to “restore America’s historic role in protecting the vulnerable and defending the rights of refugees everywhere.” As Biden approaches the anniversary of his first year in office, how do you assess his administration’s policies on refugees and migrants? 

Joan Rosenhauer: President Biden has made some good policy decisions to protect and support refugees and migrants, but he has also made a number of bad decisions that are harming the world’s most vulnerable people. We were pleased by the actions taken by the president on critical policies like reversing the so-called “Muslim ban” and raising the limit on the number of refugees who can be resettled in the United States to 125,000 for 2022, as he promised. However, it is deeply concerning and surprising that he continues to use the Trump administration’s policies to block people who have fled their homes from seeking safety in the United States. He continues to use Title 42, a public-health policy, to stop people from seeking asylum even though countless public-health experts have said it is not necessary. His administration has also failed to successfully end the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which means people must wait in highly dangerous conditions in Mexico for their opportunity to request asylum in the United States. We have been very disappointed by these border policies and will continue to push the administration to take steps to honor its commitments.  

JG: The Department of Homeland Security announced last month that the administration would re-implement the “Remain in Mexico” policy, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Your organization is part of a coalition of over ninety Catholic groups calling on President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, both of whom are Catholics, to end this policy. Why is the administration doing this and what is the impact on migrants? 

JR: President Biden suspended the MPP on his first day in office due to the violence migrants faced in Mexico while waiting for their court hearings, and officially ended it in June. However, officials in Texas and Missouri sued the administration in April over the program’s suspension. In August, a federal judge for the Northern District of Texas sided with the states and ordered the administration to reinstate the policy. Despite an appeal to the Supreme Court, the administration’s efforts to end the policy were blocked. It’s shocking that the U.S. and Mexican governments decided not only to reinstate but to expand the “Remain in Mexico” policy to include additional Western-Hemisphere countries such as Haiti. The consequences this policy has on the safety, dignity, and rights of asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border are immense and devastating. Tens of thousands of potential newcomers are forced to remain in cartel-controlled areas, and are subjected to human trafficking, domestic abuse, and destitute economic conditions.  

JG: Since President Biden pulled troops out of Afghanistan, there has been a major effort to resettle Afghan refugees fleeing the country. What role has JRS played in those resettlement efforts? 

Joan Rosenhauer, 2012 (CNS photo/courtesy CRS)

JR: Jesuit Refugee Service is helping Afghans where they are resettling around the world, including providing complementary support to the services offered in the United States by the official resettlement agencies. We are providing legal assistance, helping to meet basic needs, offering language classes, providing mental-health support, and identifying volunteers to help with a wide range of daily needs. For example, this past December, we received a $1 million gift from the Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation Group to support JRS Portugal in welcoming and resettling Afghans in Lisbon and throughout the country. The grant helped resettle over two hundred Afghans, including 115 players and members of the Afghanistan National Youth Women’s Soccer Team.  

JG: You have been a vocal advocate for refugees’ access to mental-health care and Covid-19 vaccinations, especially through the Catholic Cares Coalition, a national coalition of Catholic religious and non-profit organizations working to promote equitable distribution of vaccines in the United States and around the world. Why is this so critical and how are those efforts going? 

JR: Omicron has shown that until all people around the world have access to the vaccines, the coronavirus will spread, mutate, and ultimately add to infections around the world. We truly are all in this together. Our faith calls us to recognize this connection as one human family and to care for our brothers and sisters, especially those in greatest need. The forcibly displaced people we work with are often the least likely to have access to vaccines as they frequently have tenuous legal status. So it is critical to ensure that vaccines are available to everyone, including the most marginalized in our societies. It is especially important for the United States to exercise its global leadership role on these issues. We must ensure that enough vaccines are available globally and that current commitments to provide the vaccines are met. There is also an urgent need to provide the funds necessary to distribute the vaccines, including in the most remote communities. Finally, there is a need to share the intellectual property behind the production of vaccines and therapeutics so that they can be produced efficiently and at reasonable costs for every region of the globe. 

JG: The myriad forces driving migration—poverty, violence, political oppression, and climate change—are complicated and often interconnected. What do you say to people who are overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenges and think these problems are beyond their personal capacity to make change? 

JR: Yes, the challenges we face in our world are significant, but the response that is needed to help refugees is both individual and collective. I think that small, individual, and concrete actions can draw us closer to our neighbors in whatever situation they find themselves. Doing just one thing—advocating, volunteering, sharing, participating—and working with existing networks and organizations to multiply your impact can make a real difference in the lives of refugee and migrant families. As Pope Francis has told us, “A single individual is enough for hope to exist. And that individual can be you.” 

JG: We’re living at a time when it seems more political leaders across the globe are embracing nationalism and right-wing populism. Pope Francis has been consistently critical of the xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies that are the fruits of these ideologies, especially when political leaders use Christian language or symbols to justify their positions. How do you think the pope has affected the debate about migrants and refugees in our world? 

JR: The Holy Father has been an extremely important advocate for refugees and migrants around the world. From the beginning of his pontificate, when he made his first official visit to see refugees at Lampedusa, to recently, when he shared the Vatican’s vaccine supply with migrants and refugees, his commitment to those who have been displaced is an example that calls all Catholics and people of good will to welcome the stranger. His leadership has pushed back on global leaders promoting xenophobia and has reminded all of us that as a part of one human family we must help when our brothers and sisters are forced to flee their homes.  

JG: Since the media often focuses on Catholic issues only when it comes to abortion, debates over Communion, and the relevance of Catholic voters during elections, I’m not sure most Americans know that the Catholic Church in the United States (and other faith-based organizations) play a major role in resettling refugees. Why is the Church so committed to this work and what makes faith-based organizations so effective in responding to the needs of refugees and migrants? 

Our Scripture, doctrine, and teachings since the beginning of the Church have called for the protection of the excluded and vulnerable.

JR: Our Scripture, doctrine, and teachings since the beginning of the Church have called for the protection of the excluded and vulnerable, and who is more vulnerable than someone forced to flee from violence and persecution? One of the very powerful messages of the New Testament is the story of the Last Judgment, when we are told that at the end of time, our lives will be judged by how we treated those in greatest need, including whether we welcomed the stranger in whom we meet Christ himself. Clearly, Catholics can’t be true disciples of Jesus if we do not welcome the strangers in our midst. It is because this mission is at the heart of our faith that we are committed to being as effective as possible at it. 

Heeding this call, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of just nine agencies in the United States that lead efforts to resettle refugees. In fact, the Catholic network led by the USCCB is responsible for resettling almost 20 percent of all refugees in the United States each year. Catholic organizations like Jesuit Refugee Service, Catholic Relief Services, and Caritas support millions of forcibly displaced people every year.   

JG: You have been a prominent Catholic social-justice advocate for more than two decades and served in high-level positions at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services, and for the past three years as executive director at JRS. What first got you interested in this work and what motivates you? 

JR: As a young adult, I learned about the work supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development to ensure that low-income people can organize to have a voice in public decisions that affect their lives. I was so proud that my Church was clearly promoting justice and acting on the Gospel call to reflect God’s love for all people, especially those in greatest need. I wanted to be a part of it. So, I went to work for the USCCB, CCHD, and CRS, and focused on promoting Catholic social teaching, supporting efforts to serve those in need, and advocating for policies that reflect a commitment to peace and justice rooted in the Church’s tradition. I’m particularly inspired by my current work with JRS; we not only advocate for just policies for refugees and other displaced people, but we have a dual commitment to being as professional and effective as possible at helping refugees rebuild their lives and to accompanying displaced people—staying in relationship with them and bringing God’s love to families who have been through the trauma of fleeing their homes. Recently we were able to help a woman and her daughter who had fled from death threats by cartels in Central America. We provided psychosocial support to them during their stay at the border in Mexico, where they were still under threat from the cartels, as we worked to secure an exception to U.S. policies blocking people from seeking asylum. They are now safe in the United States and are beginning to rebuild their lives. As a mother and a Catholic, I am inspired by experiences like these, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of the mission of JRS.  

JG: You’re the first lay woman to lead JRS and your appointment was announced on International Women’s Day in 2018. How do you think about women’s leadership in our Church more broadly, and in the context of advocating for refugees? 

JR: I’m honored to serve in this role as the first lay woman executive director. Lay women bring essential leadership qualities and skills to the Church. After all, we’re half the population. How can the Church benefit from the many gifts and talents God has given to women, his children who are created in his likeness, if we don’t give women a wide range of leadership opportunities? There certainly can be challenges for women working in the Church. Clericalism exists. But I believe clericalism can only be overcome when men and women work together to advance the mission of the Church. I have also been very encouraged by the commitment I have experienced, most recently among my Jesuit colleagues, to welcoming women in leadership roles in the Church. Before the pandemic, I had an opportunity to attend a meeting in Rome where Fr. General Arturo Sosa, SJ, adjusted his schedule at the last minute to meet with the women at the gathering, and made a commitment to launch an ongoing process to advance the partnership between the Jesuits and the women who work with them. 

JG: At the start of this new year, what are you most hopeful about when it comes to advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees? 

JR: As 2022 begins, I’m hopeful that the United States will play a global leadership role in promoting peace and justice and providing support for the essential needs of migrants and refugees. I’m hopeful that support for Afghan refugees will be provided. I’m also hopeful that the United States will make sure Covid vaccines can be distributed around the world, and that it will provide resources so that families facing crises can meet essential needs, secure an education for their children, and engage in livelihoods that allow them to thrive. Finally, I’m hopeful that as the U.S. labor market tightens, our country will recognize the valuable contribution migrants and refugees make to our economy and to our society in general and will become more welcoming to those who seek safety and a decent life here.