HIAS have some news for you: If it weren’t for the U.S. immigration policies of the past 150 or so years, most of us wouldn’t be here in the first place.
Without mentioning any particular Republican candidate for president currently bloviating about immigration being the root of our problems, the folks at HIAS have some news for you: If it weren’t for the U.S. immigration policies of the past 150 or so years, most of us wouldn’t be here in the first place.
After all, even the earliest Americans came from someplace else. Helping those in war-torn or otherwise distressed lands to get settled and rebuild their lives here — whether they’re Jewish or not — is what HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is all about. And has been since its founding in 1882.
“That’s the American identity,” said Ilan Rosenberg, HIAS Pennsylvania president, following the organization’s Oct. 14 reunion luncheon where keynote speaker Leon Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services and a Cuban Jew, delivered an emotional address. “I think one thing all Americans have in common is they all came from somewhere.
“I’m originally from Mexico. I was born and raised in Mexico City. I don’t find it insulting to hear what’s being said. Those feelings exist,” added Rosenberg. “At the same time, I think the majority of Americans recognize that’s not true about most immigrants.”
Not only that, but, according to Rodriguez, whose Polish and Turkish grandparents got out of Europe before the Holocaust and settled in Havana, it’s quite personal. Just over a decade-and-a-half later, when Fidel Castro was seizing power, they were able to relocate in Miami — thanks to HIAS.
“I am a son of HIAS,” said the 53-year-old Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami, then attended Brown and Boston College, before building a career as a civil rights attorney.
“I am a son of HIAS and I will never forget it and always feel deeply emotional about this organization.”
Despite the organization’s Jewish beginnings, today, most of its clients are no longer Jewish, with more refugees coming from Burma (36), Bhutan (27), Congo (24), Iraq (13) and Iran (12) among the 167 refugees the local branch of HIAS brought into the United States this year.
“It has changed enormously,” said Judge Harold Berger, a member of the local HIAS board for 20 years, who sponsors three annual book scholarship awards in recognition of academic achievement. “Originally, we were dealing with Jewish families and Jewish refugees both here and on a national basis. “We built up such a great reputation for resettlement that when the number of Jewish refugees diminished, the government said, ‘HIAS was so good in its field we’d like them to start helping refugees from other lands.’ ”
As noble as that is, it has caused repercussions within the Jewish community.
“There are some who say, ‘We’re not helping as many Jewish refugees as in the past, so my interest is waning,’ ” explained Berger, who grew up in Archbald, in Lackawanna County, where his was the only Jewish family among the town’s 5,000 residents. “But then there are others who say HIAS is now a greater organization because it not only helps Jews but people of all faiths and backgrounds.”
The agency is among several locally to receive substantial grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia annually.
Just what does HIAS do? Consider this: “The U.S. Citizenship Department will tell us, ‘Such-and-such will be arriving on this date and at this time,’ ” explained HIAS Pennsylvania deputy director Cathryn Miller-Watson, saying the organizations usually get about a 10-day window.
“In those 10 days, we’ll find them an apartment, furnish the apartment and meet them at the airport.“Then, we have 90 days to get them acclimated to the culture. We get them medical assistance, enrolled in ESL [English as a second language] programs, financial literacy in terms of how to handle a bank account and job training. Then, after 90 days, we have to say goodbye.”
As rewarding as it is, it’s often a thankless job — unless someone like Leon Rodriguez tells you how appreciative he and all the other refugees are.
“For me to be able to be here to meet with a number of modern-day HIAS volunteers brings everything together for me,” said Rodriguez, who left the luncheon for City Hall, where he swore in 36 new American citizens — a job he tries to perform whenever he travels to a city. “I’m someone who really believes in what immigration brings to the U.S. “It enriches us economically, culturally and socially. To connect with people who also believe that way and find the source of that history in both my Jewish history and faith is something very important.”
While the Cuban Jews were not persecuted pre-revolution, they could see the writing on the wall.
“When the Cuban revolution occurred, a lot of the Jews were Holocaust survivors,” explained Rodriguez, who added that there are now more refugees around the world — approximately 19 million, with likely no more than 800,000 coming into this country this year — than ever before. “It was 16 years since World War II ended and they saw what was happening in Havana.
“That was a sign to everybody: Nothing good was ahead, so they got out. My family got out as soon as it could.”
It clearly pains Rodriguez that even as the man who runs the USCIS, he can’t bring more refugees here, particularly those from Syria.
“Every file we see,” he said at the start of his address, “whether it’s for a refugee from Syria, a high skilled worker from Central Asia, or just somebody applying to be with their husband or wife … is the story of some family’s sufferings and some family’s hopes and dreams.“As we administer a system that imposes limits and requirements, we must always remember who the human beings are behind the files. “These are in every respect people like us: People who want to work, to take care of their families, to celebrate life events. We need to recognize that and stop thinking of immigration as some kind of criminality. We need to think of them as truly our brothers and sisters.”
As for those who cite rising immigration as a means to spread fear — and perhaps get votes — it concerns him.
“It does for two reasons,” said Rodriguez, who was joined at his table by his college roommate, current associate dean of Drexel Law School, Daniel Filler and Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin, who gave a d’var Torah at Rodriguez’ daughter Talia’s Bat Mitzvah. “One, as we have always done, we do our job so that the criminals and immigration threats don’t get immigration
“That is a core part of how we screen refugees or give out green cards. The other factor is that the level of criminality is actually so far down. What people should be looking at are the hundreds and thousands of kids just looking for a future like my kids are, who want to be teachers and doctors and policemen and you name it.That’s the real story.”
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