Conflict of Interest? World Relief, Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Debate

Recently, World Relief convened Christian leaders to speak out for immigrants. After some raised questions on their mission and motives, the aid group responds.

By Josh Shepherd Published on February 21, 2018

Recently, immigration reform has been front and center on Capitol Hill. Last Monday evening, the U.S. Senate voted 97-1 to proceed to debate specific proposals. On Thursday, four separate immigration bills all failed to get the needed 60 votes to proceed.

Some Senate leaders still see an opportunity to pass a targeted bill that could pass both chambers. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires on March 5. More than 700,000 immigrants, many brought to the U.S. as children, will face potential deportation. Senator James Lankford, R-Okla., vowed to keep working in coming weeks towards a solution.

Lankford appeared recently at a press conference convened by World Relief. He spoke alongside faith leaders who advocate the cause of immigrants and refugees. In interviews with The Stream, some questioned World Relief’s role in the coalition.

“I don’t doubt that these groups have sincere convictions,” states Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “But World Relief and various Catholic relief groups get government dollars for refugee resettlement while lobbying for immigration causes. So there is a seeming self-interest.”

Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy at World Relief, responds in an interview. “Money has never been a driving factor,” she says. “Our staff members feel it is part of their missional calling to reach the nations for Christ by loving their immigrant neighbors. They make minimal amounts of money in doing this work.”

World Relief operates as one of nine voluntary agencies with contracts under the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Since last year, the inflow of refugees into the U.S. has been drastically cut. Interviews with leaders on both sides reveal divisions — even when values are shared.

Debating Dollars and Displaced Persons

World Relief has become one of America’s largest faith-based aid groups. Their staff and volunteers have served in over 100 nations. The group is an outreach of the National Association of Evangelicals. World Relief has long held a top four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

Jenny Yang

Jenny Yang

Often on Capitol Hill, Yang’s role is to advocate for human rights and religious liberty. “Any time we speak up on an issue, it really is out of knowing people personally in relationship,” says Yang. “Whether we’re speaking out on the food crisis in South Sudan or other parts of Africa, or we’re speaking up for immigrants in the U.S., it’s because these are individuals we know and serve in our ministry.”

Kelly Kullberg has been a volunteer missionary in seven nations. In the early 1990’s, she served at a World Relief project in Central America. “We helped reclaim a San Salvador garbage dump,” she recalls. “The project won a U.N. award as a redeemed home for 8,000 people.”

Since 2013, Kullberg has headed up Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration. The loose coalition critiques what it calls “pro-amnesty evangelicals.”

Today, she asserts a troubling agenda drives the venerable aid agency. “World Relief once did great Christian gospel work around the world — both in word and deed,” says Kullberg. “Perhaps World Relief should explain how they’ve received more than $256 million in U.S. government grants for resettling immigrants and refugees.”

The funding figure comes from official government sources at “While they still do work overseas, it seems that the priority has become refugee work in the U.S,” states Kullberg.

Yang, who has served with World Relief since 2006, responds. “We are a Christian ministry that, yes, receives some public funding,” she says. “To argue or insinuate that this is somehow lining the pockets of individuals, I think is an insult actually. I challenge people who think or believe that to meet any one of our staff.”

“Most of the people who work for World Relief, either in our international offices or in the U.S., have been missionaries for decades,” she explains. “We serve people whom Jesus specifically calls his followers to serve — the most vulnerable.”

How Faith Groups Navigate Aid Guidelines

Concerns for Christian witness are at the heart of her criticisms, Kullberg claims.

“By taking federal money, World Relief and other voluntary agencies cannot legally share the gospel of Jesus Christ, verbally, with those they are serving,” she says. “World Relief should consider the whole counsel of Scripture, the long-term consequences of their work and get back to their original mission.”

Yang notes that such views misconstrue their ministry model. “We are unabashedly Christian,” she says. “Empowering local churches in some of the most desperate places around the world is a real key way to lead to transforming relationships.”

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“We also adhere to strict humanitarian policies and guidelines. In our international and U.S. programs, we don’t engage in proselytism. We serve any and all based on need — regardless of faith,” continues Yang. In 2015, evangelical leaders including Pastor Rick Warren joined scholars to affirm that development aid should never be conditioned on religious conversion.

World Relief president Scott Arbeiter also spoke at last week’s press conference. “We’ve had the privilege, over the years, of investing in over 300,000 refugees’ lives,” he said. “We know their stories, their dignity and the power they have brought to our nation.”

The way Kullberg sees resettling refugees stands in contrast. “We [should] continue to personally help vulnerable foreigners,” she says. “But let’s stop tearing apart the fabric of our own culture and nation. I’m not sure that anyone wins. We’ve dismembered families abroad, and created tension at home.”

Others see embracing those in need as a net gain. “We have a unique and distinctive mission, which is working through the local church,” says Yang. “We learn as much from the people we serve as much as we feel like we give them.”

Crisis, Fear and Prudent Policies

With the rise of radical Islamic terrorism in recent years, 66 million people are now displaced and 22 million refugees have left their home nations. “The victims of ISIS are running for their lives,” said Arbeiter. “In a time of the greatest refugee crisis in history, we are taking in fewer refugees than ever.”

He clarified further in his remarks on Capitol Hill. “The U.S. has committed to settling one half of one percent of those refugees,” he said. “In 2017, we resettled less than 34,000. At our current pace, we will resettle less than 24,000.”

Some conservative media outlets have been decidedly upbeat in coverage of this crisis. “Refugee advocates […] were hopeful that a slight monthly increase in refugee admissions that had occurred from October to December might continue into January,” stated one Breitbart article. “But they were sorely disappointed.”

Jenny Yang speaks to the fear that underlies such headlines. “This idea that refugees are a national security threat is not true,” she says. “Since 1980, the U.S. has resettled three million refugees. Not a single refugee has taken the life of an American in a terrorist attack. Not a single one.” Experts note that refugees are highly vetted.

Some experts in Congress see improvements that can be made. A native of Puerto Rico who grew up in Nevada, Congressman Raúl Labrador, R-Ida., has introduced a bill to enhance refugee screening. “Our refugee program needs to be reformed to keep pace with the security challenges of today’s world,” said the former immigration lawyer when introducing his bill. The bill has yet to receive a House vote.

“None of the work we’re doing is necessarily partisan in nature,” states Yang. However, World Relief has publicly opposed Labrador’s bill. Other critics are quick to describe World Relief’s work in starkly political terms. “World Relief has become an arm of the Obama-era refugee agenda,” says Kullberg.

“Under President Obama, they began to take hundreds of millions in U.S. government funding to resettle refugees in America,” she explains. “These include many refugees who do not intend to assimilate and come as a blessing. Democrats are interested in future voters. They clearly don’t mind breaking up families for their permanent progressive majority.”

While sympathetic to hardline views, Tooley does not view supporting refugees in such a partisan light. “It’s facile to project political views on persons not yet born,” he states. “Likely consequences 50 years from now of immigration today will be very different than commonly imagined.”

World Relief began its refugee resettlement work in 1979. Two missionaries who had served in Vietnam sought a means to help families seeking refugee. The State Department recommended they connect with World Relief to navigate complex policies.

Their work for refugees has expanded since then. Nonprofit groups file Form 990 annually with the IRS, which are accessible online. Examining the past 15 years, “Refugee Assistance” has been consistently listed as part of World Relief’s work. Their government grants were comparable during the Bush and Obama years, peaking in 2016.

Calling the Faithful to Common Ground

Through the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Mark Tooley daily connects evangelical leaders with policy expertise. “Very few Christians addressing immigration are carefully integrating humanitarian interests with national interests,” he laments. “Immigration is almost always more complicated and unpredictable than commonly portrayed.”

Prior to his current role, he worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. Tooley often urges deeper thinking on both sides. “Mostly the Christian conversation on immigration is very superficial and simplistic,” he states. “Some pretend a few Bible verses are sufficient for crafting policy. It’s rare for Scripture to give definitive counsel on contemporary political issues, so we should use it modestly.”

He perhaps refers to the World Relief press conference, where the Bible was often quoted. More Scripture may yet be heard on the Senate floor in days ahead. Jenny Yang sees a path forward in the heated immigration debate to come.

“Support for refugees and immigrants in the U.S. is a bipartisan issue,” says Yang. “There are members of both parties who are very strong on human rights, religious freedom and the need for robust foreign assistance. World Relief works with any and all who support the principles we adhere to.”

“Being measured and in the middle is what we’re ultimately looking for.”

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