Administration Official on Illegal Aliens: ‘Jesus Was a Refugee’

Penny Starr | July 8, 2014 | 3:04pm EDT
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Children detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. (AP Photo)

( – The man who heads the federal agency responsible for many of the 50,000 unaccompanied alien children from Central America who have entered the U.S. illegally in recent months told a conference on Tuesday that those working with refugees should look to Jesus Christ as a role model.

"Jesus was a refugee, and that’s a very good reminder to all of us,” Eskinder Negash, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), said at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) 2014 Migration Conference in Washington, D.C.

In the case of unaccompanied alien children, U.S. law requires that those who do not come from a contiguous country, i.e. Mexico or Canada, be transferred to the custody of ORR to be reunited with family or placed elsewhere until deportation proceedings can be completed.

“I happen to believe in [the] refugee program, not just because Jesus was a refugee -- because I was also myself a refugee,” said Negash, who was named to his post by the Obama administration in 2009.

Negash told the people attending the conference, hosted by USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Legal Immigration Network and Catholic Charities USA, that people working with refugees “can only be successful and have a long impact on people when we actually start seeing ourselves [as] the people we want to serve.”

Negash also said that his agency, which he said normally handles the cases of about 70,000 individuals of all ages a year, is now in the spotlight because of the surge of unaccompanied illegal minors who are streaming by the thousands daily across the U.S. border with Mexico.

He recalled when someone asked him: “Do you want ORR to be under the radar?”

“And I told him, yes, we don’t necessarily need [the] media always talking about the work we do, but unfortunately, now every day you can see it on every channel, about this tiny office, ORR,” Negash said.

Negash said that the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program is the largest of ORR’s programs, with a $912 million budget. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to appropriate an additional $2 billion for ORR’s UAC program.

But, Negash said, people should be less concerned with funding and the mass influx of illegal aliens and concentrate on the people that he and others “serve.”

“So I believe it’s very, very important we do that self-examination and do it quickly and see ourselves with the people we want to serve,” said Negash, who fled his native Ethiopia into Sudan in 1980 after a Soviet-backed military coup.

“Yes I was once described as an alien myself, if that’s a proper term to use,” Negash said.

In a welcoming letter in the conference program, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, wrote about people in the “shadows and margins of our communities.”

“In our world today we are challenged by the complex and multifaceted social phenomenon of migration in which many who are looking for a better life find themselves instead consigned to the shadows and margins of our communities,” Wuerl wrote.

“In addition, the number of refugees forced to flee oppressive conditions in their homeland is substantial and the degradation of human trafficking cannot be overestimated,” he added.

The four-day conference features a wide range of immigrant-related workshops and an “advocacy day” when participants will meet with members of Congress.

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