In the elevator at the Jewish Community Services Building, it’s not uncommon to see people who hail from countries around the world.
Sometimes they have children with them. They might wear traditional clothing or jeans and a T-shirt. Often, the words of a foreign language fill the elevator as they converse with an employee of HIAS Pennsylvania.
The building houses a variety of different Jewish organizations and agencies, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. One of those other organizations is HIAS PA, which resettles refugees and provides legal and educational services to refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers from across the world. It is the local partner of the national HIAS agency, which acts through independent nonprofits across the country. (In Pittsburgh, the local HIAS partner agency is that city’s Jewish Family and Community Services.)
“We know there were periods when Jewish refugees were trying to come to the United States and were excluded,” said Dveera Segal, HIAS PA board president and a Villanova University Civil Justice Clinic director and law professor. “Obviously, that’s part of the reason why, as Jews, we have a particular responsibility and a particular response to try to welcome people who are fleeing from violence.”
Just hours before the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh, the alleged gunman Robert Bowers posted online about HIAS, accusing the refugee resettlement organization of bringing immigrants — he called them “invaders” — to the United States to do violence.
“Violence, on some level, always surprises me,” HIAS PA Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson said. “I really don’t understand how people can kill other people. I’m not sure how else to say it. The hostility about immigration is unfortunately something that I’m not surprised about.”
In 1882, HIAS PA was founded to rescue Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe. HIAS workers at the time were mainly volunteers who helped people at the docks.
The landscape of immigration looked starkly different from what it looks like today. That same year, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the country’s first immigration laws, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The Emergency Quota Act, which put quotas on how many immigrants were allowed from each country and restricted many of those coming from Eastern Europe, would not become law for another 40 years.
HIAS saw its first major change around the time of World War II, Miller-Wilson said. HIAS began to hire lawyers because of changes in immigration law and the increased need to get Jews out of Europe.
In the ’70s, the federal government approached HIAS and asked for help resettling refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam. As HIAS already had experience resettling Jewish refugees, it was a natural fit. This marked the beginning of HIAS providing services to non-Jews as well.
Since the wave of Jewish immigrants coming from the former Soviet Union has declined, HIAS’ work has shifted to aiding mostly non-Jews.
Last fiscal year, it helped people from 114 different countries, Miller-Wilson said. The people who receive their services practice different religions and range in age, from toddlers to those in their late 90s. HIAS staff has also diversified with the changing
“Things shift depending on what’s on fire in the world,” Miller-Wilson said.
Attitudes around immigration have also changed over the course of American history, Segal said. Segal has been on the board for 15 years, and during that time, she’s never seen parts of American culture as anti-immigrant as it is now.
“It’s a very challenging time for anyone working in the area of immigration, for anyone who is working with immigrants,” Segal said. “One of the issues of governance is ensuring the organization has the resources it needs in order to do the work that it does.”
Since Donald Trump has become president, refugee resettlement work has become harder, Miller-Wilson said.
Soon after he took office, HIAS had to deal with the ban on people entering the country from Muslim-majority countries. But HIAS has also faced a deluge of other challenges from since then.
Immigration policies have closed the door on Syrian refugees, dividing families, Miller-Wilson said. The drop in refugees being admitted to the United States has led to HIAS employees needing to be moved around and less support for those who still work with refugees. Certain avenues into qualifying for asylum status in the United States — fleeing domestic violence or gang violence, for example — have also closed.
Trump has called immigrants animals and criminals. This rhetoric — that immigrants are dangerous — is not based on fact, Miller-Wilson said.
“The federal government’s rhetoric [around immigration] dehumanizes, and that’s the first step,” Miller-Wilson said. “If you don’t think of other people — whether they’re Jews, whether they’re immigrants, whether they’re refugees, whether they’re African-Americans — if you don’t think that they’re people, then you’ve taken the first step towards being able to commit a heinous crime.”