By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Dramatic shifts in national immigration and refugee policies have created a sense of confusion and fear among those who are in the country without legal status and among others attempting to navigate the bureaucratic minefields to enter through legal channels.  

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The choir from the Christ the King Christian Center energized the crowd of more than 100 during a celebration of World Refugee Day on June 24 at the center. The day also offered prayer, Scripture readings and reflection. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator



Those new policies along with a much more stringent vetting process have caused seismic changes in the makeup of those entering the country, according to Jean Dresley, director of Mission Engagement for Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

Dresley said Louisiana has seen a significant bump in the number of asylees compared to refugees. She said through the first six months of the year the state has already welcomed 53 who have been granted asylum, as opposed to 41 in all of last year.  

Conversely, only six refugees have arrived, compared to what is traditionaly close to 100 by this time.  

“Federal policies being set and the new vetting standards are making it very difficult to make it through the process,” Dresley said. “It’s like a funnel and very few are making it through.”   

Dresley’s comments came during the celebration of World Refugee Day on June 24 at Christ the King Christian Center in Baton Rouge. More than 100 people representing countries from across the globe gathered for a day of prayer, riveting music, Gospel readings, preaching, informative talks, fellowship and a reception that included a variety of multi-cultural culinary dishes.  

Organizer Dauda Sesay, himself a refugee from Syria, said the goal of the event was to create awareness among refugees, immigrants and asylees as to what assistance is available and also to empower families in their new surroundings. 

“When they feel empowered they are able to engage in the community and allow for them to become a better citizen,” Sesay said.  

He added that most refugees carry with them the fear they have lived with the majority of their lives. Sesay said that fear continues to haunt them even in the United States, especially those with illegal status.  

“There is a fear that maybe one day (immigration officials) will grab them and they will be in trouble,” he added.  

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Jean Dresley, director of Mission Engagement for Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge, discussed how national changes in immigration and refugee policies have affected the number of people allowed into the country.  


Dresley explained that during the past several months the state has welcomed refugees from a number of countries. She said the biggest challenge those and all newcomers face is understanding their rights and the benefits and assistance that are available.  

Perhaps most daunting is the language barrier, and because of that many entering the country are unaware of what they are entitled to in terms of public assistance, health care and numerous other benefits. 

“That is why I need you to be my ambassadors to get the word out because there are so many people who do not realize (what is available),” Dresley said. “They receive a letter (from the State Department) saying congratulations but they can’t understand everything that is in that letter.”  

Among other challenges, Dresley said, is the trauma of their past lives and how that can be addressed, integration into a new culture and society, professional education and licenses obtained in other countries not being recognized in the U.S. resulting in highly educated refugees being forced to work in menial and low paying jobs, money, bullying in schools and affordable housing, especially in Baton Rouge where high occupancy rates have fueled significant increases in rental rates.  

Dresley also explained that a significant problem is children being granted asylum and joining their parents, who are already in the country but do not have legal status. She said that puts the family at great vulnerability and risk.  

“We are trying figure out how to help,” she admitted.  

Ann Sperry, state refugee coordinator for the Louisiana Office of Refugees, agreed with Dresley for saying the year has been difficult for refugees because of the new policies and vetting process.  

“The problems are across the board, not just Baton Rouge, not just Lafayette, not just New Orleans,” she said “It’s across the country.”  

Financial cutbacks from the federal government is also creating the potential of closing many of the offices that help newcomers acclimate to their new environment.  

“If those offices close who’s going to care for the people?” she said. 

World Refugee Day was June 20 and celebrations were held around the country throughout the entire week.  

“I want to tell you I will always stand with refugees in this country,” Dresley said to a round of applause. “This is what we are called as Christians to do.”