By Aaron Greenberg
Though the world has become more aware of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society since the accused gunman in the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting criticized it on social media, the worldwide Jewish community has reacted positively to the organization in the past three years.
“The Jewish community woke up at the same time the rest of the world did in 2015. But they have remained wide-awake and involved in this issue,” HIAS President/CEO Mark Hetfield said last month. His reference to 2015 was in regard to the European migrant crisis that year, just after a wave of unaccompanied minors came to the United States the year before. That marked the start of the current migration of Central American asylum-seekers toward the U.S., including the latest caravan that became a campaign issue in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
While the Jewish response as a whole may have been slow in building, the entire refugee program is rooted in efforts to memorialize and remember the Holocaust, Hetfield said.
“The entire refugee system in the world and the U.S. is based on not allowing people to get caught in another Holocaust,” he said.
Additionally, it’s a way to show Jewish values on the larger stage.
“For the Jewish community in particular, it’s important to show we’re not a one-issue community, which many people think we are. Israel is a central issue to us, but one of those issues is how we treat people who are fleeing.”
There is a balance between Jewish values, according to Temple Emanu-El Senior Rabbi David Stern.
“There is Jewish complexity here,” Stern said. “We’re unique in standing for the rights of immigrants, but I think we’re unique among religious traditions in standing for rule of law. To me, HIAS represents the synthesis of those two ideas.”
Stern’s congregation was one of about 300 across North America that took part in Refugee Shabbat on Oct. 19. His sermon included an impassioned take on the way asylum seekers are treated once they get to the border and how their situation is different from those sneaking across.
“Their showing up at the border is not illegal. It is in fact legally required if they seek refugee status. So to turn asylum seekers away as illegal immigrants — including the tens of thousands of Central American kids and their families who have shown up at the Texas border, fleeing murder, kidnapping, forced gang recruitment and especially violence against women — to call them illegal immigrants is in fact to violate not only the letter and spirit of international law, but the very purpose they showed up for in the first place.”
HIAS’ message has other supporters in the Dallas area. National board member Frank Risch lives here, and two congregations (Temple Emanu-El and Temple Shalom) take part in the Welcome Campaign, out of five in Texas and 427 nationally. Hetfield said individuals can make a difference by getting their synagogues involved.
“They should definitely look for those opportunities, and I would especially encourage their synagogue’s social committees to get involved,” Stern said.
Risch added there was a strong feeling of coming together in Dallas.
“HIAS is hearing from thousands of people saying to keep doing what it’s doing.”
Many Jews in the community are descendants of those helped by HIAS but didn’t know,” he said.
“A terrible tragedy like this also shines a spotlight on the work of this agency.”
Alexandra Horn, director of social justice and small group engagement at Temple Emanu-El, said her congregation is involved with several programs that serve immigrants in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood, including the International Rescue Committee. One program encourages refugees to share in the congregation’s Community Garden. The congregation also has advocacy programs, such as letters to members of Congress urging the welcoming of more refugees (the program has been capped at one-third of its historical high).
Additionally, she urges members to support Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, which does its tikkun olam work at the border.
Another way to get involved — for those with the time, and especially with a legal background — is to volunteer at the local level with agencies that represent migrants and asylum seekers. And Hetfield suggested that those who can’t volunteer with their congregation or other agencies donate to HIAS or ProBAR, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project.
“Asylum seekers are detained in extremely remote areas, where it is difficult to find experienced legal counsel,” Hetfield said. “Likewise, the immigration system is increasingly relying on remote judges. They will have immigration judges in Arlington, Virginia, while the detainees are kept thousands or hundreds of miles away, and the cases are heard by video. The attorney has to figure out if they need to be with you in a trailer where you are in chains, or with the immigration judge and ICE attorney. It makes representation very, very difficult. It’s a real challenge for volunteers.”
One local volunteer is Larry Schoenbrun, a lawyer who has teamed with Catholic Charities and immigration attorney Paul Zoltan to help. Schoenbrun was moved four years ago by a photo in The Dallas Morning News of young siblings without representation who were being deported. After several inquiries, he found his way to Zoltan’s office.
“The government does not provide counsel for asylum candidates, unlike a criminal proceeding, where you are entitled to counsel and the government provides that,” Schoenbrun said. “These little kids…they can’t even understand the language. That sent me on a task to find how to perhaps help.”
It requires dozens of hours to get the information required from asylum seekers, especially the stories behind why they are seeking asylum, Schoenbrun said. He said that many lawyers willing to do pro bono work don’t have the time to do a case properly.
His first case was a 14-year-old girl who took the forms home instead of following directions. After Catholic Charities reached out to her, Schoenbrun helped her complete the application process. She’s now at the top of her high school class.
“Everybody I’ve been involved with, with one exception, have been women with children or unaccompanied children. I am currently involved with a father and his daughter, and he was a police informer. He would inform on gang activities to the police to run gangs out of town. If the gang finds out, they kill you or the members of your family,” Schoenbrun said.
“It’s a very frustrating process and the government is doing everything they can to hassle people and make it more difficult. Most of these people are fleeing three very dysfunctional countries with gangs exported from the U.S. The government has announced that people fleeing gang violence is not grounds for asylum.
“I’m the son of immigrants. My grandmother died in Auschwitz. For me, it’s a passion. Others that I’ve talked to have bought into this tripe that we’re being invaded, they are murderers and rapists. I haven’t found any of these children that would qualify as murders or rapists.”