Deffenbaugh's Lutheran agency resettles about 10,000 refugees a year. As many receive help each year from Church World Service of the National Council of Churches, an association of 32 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. Next to the U.S. Catholic Conference's operation, the nation's largest resettlement agency is the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works primarily with Soviet Jews.
These agencies' sharp response to anti-immigrant rhetoric has provoked an equally sharp response from those favoring new restrictions on immigration into this country. U.S. law allows for 700,000 immigrants a year, in addition to the 130,000 refugees, who fall into the separate category of those who flee their homelands because of political persecution.
"What you have here is a very vocal and powerful lobby," said David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The federation, based in Washington, advocates a limit on immigration of about 300,000 a year.
"It's very easy to stand up in your bell tower and call for more immigration. But when it comes down to it, the church groups aren't the ones that will come up with the bucks needed" to keep refugees and immigrants in the United States, Ray said. "It's the taxpayers who foot the bill."
Hinting at a financial interest, Ray noted that religious agencies "get money from the government" for every refugee they resettle.
According to State Department figures, the organizations receive $588 for each refugee whose case they handle. Yet Ryscavage of the Catholic agency said the church spends $2,000 to $3,000--including in-kind services--to get a refugee set up in a community.
"That far outstrips anything the government gives," Ryscavage said. The costs beyond the State Department's per capita grant are absorbed by the church, he said.
While considered a credible force in the United States, the aid agencies acknowledge that they have little direct influence over policies in Western Europe. As one way of reaching the Continent, Catholic Church leaders are drawing up plans to bring groups of Western Europeans to America to teach them about ethnic diversity.
"I think we have a lot to teach them about how multicultural societies work--how we've effectively integrated newcomers into our communities," Ryscavage said.
Notwithstanding the recent warning signs of latent U.S. nativism, some religious leaders say they believe that the American tradition of welcoming the newcomer is still alive and well in churches.
Matthew Giuffrida, who heads the immigration and refugee program of the American Baptist Churches, said local congregations appear to be responding swiftly and generously to calls for help in the resettlement of Haitian refugees. Other church officials report a similar openness, even at a time of growing economic uncertainty.
"There is a deep well of good will in the United States. And it is the task of churches to keep that alive," Deffenbaugh said.