When the Trump administration announced last month the proposed refugee resettlement ceiling of 30,000 for FY 2019, HIAS stepped into action. It is the lowest number set by any president since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
In Atlanta last week, HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield called the Presidential Determination a betrayal in America’s history and global leadership. HIAS is a 130-year-old global Jewish non-profit organization that aids refugees through advocacy, resettlement, legal services and international protection.
“By setting the refugee number this low, this administration is betraying the commitments we made after World War II – followed by decades of bipartisan support – to ensure that the world never again turns its back on innocent people seeking safety. “During a period of unprecedented crisis, America has signaled it is a nation in retreat, and as a result the outlook for refugees looks even more bleak,” said Hetfield, who raised money and met with community leaders during his Atlanta visit.
In 2016, the refugee ceiling set by President Barack Obama was 110,000; in 2017, President Donald Trump set it at 45,000.
Cabinet officials had not approved the proposed 30,000 refugee ceiling as of press time earlier this week.
While in Atlanta, Hetfield met with Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and spoke at Congregation Shearith Israel.
His message was clear: It is a Jewish value to welcome the stranger. “We used to help refugees because they were Jewish. Now we help because we are Jewish. You don’t have to look far back into history to find someone in your family who was a refugee,” he said.
In Georgia, HIAS partners with the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, New American Pathways, Lutheran Services of Georgia, World Relief and Catholic Charities.
Jewish Family & Career Services closed its resettlement services around 2009 because it did not have the expertise to accommodate people coming from different countries and situations.
In Greater Atlanta, resettlement often lands refugees in Clarkston and Stone Mountain. Hetfield said Atlanta has one of the harshest immigration courts in the country. “Asylum seekers are smart to not apply in Atlanta. Once you declare your intentions at Hartsfield-Jackson [Atlanta] International Airport, you are automatically detained,” he said.
He explained that judges in Atlanta are infamous for denying status. Detainees are sent to Stewart Detention Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Lumpkin, Ga., about 150 miles south of downtown Atlanta. Stewart is widely reported to be unsafe, riddled with drugs and a steep staff turnover.
Hetfield said volunteers, once welcoming refugees and asylum seekers with resettlement, are switching gears since restrictions on refugees narrowed. “The feedback we receive is frustration waiting for refugees to arrive,” he said. “People want to help.”
HIAS now encourages supporters to engage with candidates and politicians. “Advocacy is the way to go. So many people want to volunteer and so few refugees are coming in. It is easier to get engaged as an advocate,” he said.
HIAS’ welcome campaign encompasses 420 synagogues across the U.S., including seven in Atlanta: Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim, Congregation Shearith Israel, Temple Beth Tikvah, Temple Kehillat Chaim, Temple Sinai and The Temple.
Hetfield believes refugees are a net gain to the economy. He said cynics, more likely to be first generation American Jews, cannot deny that our ancestors are like the people coming to the U.S. today. Millions of refugees live in the United States, and not one has committed a single act of terror.
On Oct. 19-20, HAIS’ National Refugee Shabbat program engages the Torah portion Lech Lecha, which details the beginning of Abraham leading the Jewish people in a search of freedom. Bet Haverim plans to participate.