By Aaron Greenberg
The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society used to have a hard time bringing attention to its mission of advocating for and assisting in the resettlement of refugees.
“Frankly, before 2015, working for HIAS was quite lonely,” HIAS President/CEO Mark Hetfield said, referring to the year of the European migrant crisis. That came on the heels of the wave of unaccompanied minors coming into the United States in 2014, marking the start of the current wave of asylum seekers from Central America. “I’d say four years ago our biggest problem at HIAS was apathy. That’s no longer a problem for us. People feel like they have a stake in the refugee crisis. Many, many people who identify as Jews in particular.”
From the Mediterranean refugee crisis to the policy changes of President Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist movements around the world, HIAS and the issues it deals with were gaining more attention.
Then, tragedy struck and HIAS made the front page for the last reason Hetfield could possibly want. The alleged shooter in the Tree of Life tragedy in Pittsburgh had specifically called out the organization just before the attack, saying “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.”
HIAS released a statement on Oct. 29, declaring “Our mission is to stay the course and continue our work. We help people who are in need; we help refugees who are fleeing violence and persecution.”
And, Hetfield points out that since the Refugee Act was signed in 1980, not a single lethal act of terror has been committed by the 3 million refugees accepted into this country.
But the tragedy in Pittsburgh has already led to changes at the 137-year-old organization.
“The incident itself was pure evil. For HIAS, it was transformational, for better and worse,” Hetfield said.
“Our mission is to focus on refugees, but now we have to focus on larger issues of hatred. Our biggest obstacle now for refugees is hatred: of refugees, of Jews, of Jews helping refugees.
“Our politicians breed fear, which leads to hate speech, which leads to hate acts. We have to stand up to hatred.”
Working relationships with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League will become more valuable in the wake of the attack.
“It’s got to be a strategy of fighting against hatred, and not just of refugees, but all groups. As we’ve learned, anti-Semites don’t just hate Jews, they hate the ‘other.’ There’s a much larger issue of hatred and scapegoating in society.”
Hate speech directed at HIAS from social media isn’t new, but has never been a real problem before.
“Our strategy has been to ignore them, but now we see the anger they stoke, and we will be taking a different tack in terms of how we monitor them and how we act,” Hetfield said.
And it’s led to a notable change for headquarters and leadership.
“Our security used to consist of a receptionist with a buzzer. Now, I have multiple armed guards. And this is not a temporary measure,” Hetfield said.
As difficult as these challenges over the past few years have been, the raised profile of the issues — including the immigrant caravan currently heading through Mexico — has led to a greater awareness and more determined support.
“The big change for us and for the issue generally is the attention finally being paid to the issues at the border, the treatment of children and asylum seekers at the border, as well as undocumented immigrants and the treatment of families,” he said. “One thing we have to thank the Trump administration for is bringing public attention to these longstanding issues.”
This week, he added that in light of the shootings, “we’re feeling more love than ever before from the Jewish community and non-Jewish community as a result of these events. It’s made many people who were not familiar with HIAS and our mission familiar with it, and they’ve embraced it.”
Thousands of new supporters have signed up, and many elected and appointed officials have reached out.
But greater attention to the issue does not mean that the public is necessarily more aware of the reality. One of the biggest challenges HIAS has is drawing the distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, legal and undocumented immigrants, and the policies applying to each. This has only been heightened with the migrant caravan.
The narratives on all sides in the public sphere tend to get the basics wrong, he said, and although The New York Times and Washington Post have generally had strong coverage, the BBC is one of the only sources delving accurately into details. MSNBC, Fox News and alternative sources tend to be unreliable, in Hetfield’s opinion. And in the wake of the Tree of Life attack and the caravan debate, he said the room for civil debate is shrinking.
“That’s the frustration in this field right now. The truth almost seems irrelevant, and it’s not,” he said.
“What both sides are getting wrong is the conflation of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. Not everybody who crosses the border, even those fleeing horrible conditions, are entitled to remain in the U.S. The most important thing an asylum system does is determine who deserves legal protection and who does not. I think that distinction is lost on those on both extremes.”
It’s not a new problem, he points out, although both policy changes and the current application of existing policies have made it worse.
“The way the system is supposed to work, when you get to the border, if you need protection — if your life is in danger because of what you believe or who you are, you can ask for protection from the U.S. and get that protection. The most important thing is to make that decision as quickly and fairly as possible. If you are not entitled to protection, we need to send you back. But that’s not happening. It takes you years to see an immigration judge if you get past the Border Patrol. But the Border Patrol is also obligated, and they push people back that shouldn’t be pushed back. They operate in a system of total opaqueness.”
The Trump administration decision to send troops to the border to meet the caravan brought a scathing response from Hetfield.
“They have the right to present an asylum claim and seek protection. That has to be done. President Trump would be violating international law and U.S. law if he carries out on those threats. If he’s that concerned, have a fair, vast and efficient asylum procedure.
“His answer is to send troops? That’s outrageous.”
According to Hetfield, the system is broken and can’t be addressed by a wall, military forces, letting a backlog of cases build up or making legal immigration harder.
“They need to understand why people flee. And it is very complicated. People come to this country for very different reasons. How is this system supposed to work, and how does it work? There’s a big difference between what our laws are supposed to accomplish versus what they are actually accomplishing.”