Update: The original article was corrected on Aug. 14, 2019 to correct information regarding HIAS Pennsylvania signing the letter.
On Aug. 7 — the same day that mass U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids took place across the country — 167 Jewish organizations nationwide sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“On behalf of the 167 undersigned national, state and local Jewish organizations and institutions below, we write to express our shared grave concern about recent reports that the administration is considering resettling zero refugees in the United States in FY2020,” the letter begins. “As Jewish organizations, we do not write today to convey our collective views on broader immigration policy, but we are committed to welcoming those fleeing violence, persecution, and war. We urge the United States to meet the resettlement admissions goal of 30,000 this fiscal year and return the Presidential Determination to historic norms for fiscal year 2020.”
There were a substantial number of national organizations represented on the letter — Orthodox Union, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America, for example — but local organizations were encouraged to add their names as well.
In the Philadelphia area, the National Council of Jewish Women-Greater Philadelphia Section authorized its state policy advocacy chair to sign the letter on its behalf. NCJW-Greater Philadelphia was joined by JEVS Human Services.
Lynne Jacobs, the Pennsylvania state policy advocacy chair for NCJW, wrote via email that the organization’s coalition partners — HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center — would be “severely impacted if refugees already in the ‘pipeline’ are blocked from entering” the United States.
“NCJW believes that we have a responsibility to welcome the stranger and, as an organization, we have spoken out on behalf of immigrants and refugees for more than 125 years,” Jacobs said.
As the letter to Pompeo notes, the global refugee population reached a record 25.9 million in 2018, which qualifies this era as being the “worst global refugee crisis since WWII.”
Kristen Rantanen, senior vice president of communications and public and affairs at JEVS Human Services, explained her organization’s decision to sign the letter as a simple extension of its long-held values; as she said, JEVS Humans Services has “been in the business of serving refugees since our founding in 1941.”
“We proudly continue to do that up to this day,” she said.
Rantanen noted that what concerns them most over the proposed cuts to the number of arrivals is that, whether refugees will be allowed to enter the U.S. or not, the conflicts in their home countries are ongoing. There are “ten of thousands of people being persecuted for religious or political reasons,” she said.
Still, she can’t help but anticipate further reductions to both the admissions target and actual admissions.
She also pointed out that, in the time between when the letter was sent and when she spoke with the Jewish Exponent, the Trump administration had announced that legal immigrants, if they have claimed public benefits in the past, would now find it much harder to remain in the U.S. legally.
“We do think America is still a place where people should be welcomed,” she said.
Though HIAS Pennsylvania did not sign on to the letter, Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director, said that it “is one, obviously, that we agree with.”
“We are extremely concerned, as is stated in the letter, about the administration’s failure to understand the critical role that refugee resettlement plays in addressing the problem of displaced persons and persecution,” said Miller-Wilson. “The program has been a strongly bipartisan one since its legal creation in 1980 and even before then, as part of the efforts made by all allied nations to learn from the mistakes made during World War II. It was agreed at that time that banding together to ensure the safety and resettlement of persecuted peoples was a moral obligation and also the most effective way to ensure the revival of decimated peoples and communities.”
The decision to reduce admissions, she continued, “not only ignores human suffering but also is adding fuel to a conflagration that is spreading.”
“These actions — turning our backs on people fleeing for their lives — defy the proud promise indelibly inscribed on the Statute of Liberty. As Jews, we know all too well what happens when people fleeing for their lives have nowhere to turn. Our parents or grandparents, neighbors or community members once faced a similarly callous and unwelcoming world, with fatal consequences,” the letter reads. “The Jewish community has a particular moral responsibility that compels our commitment to welcoming refugees.”