Why is HIAS seeking to make America’s border crisis even worse?

The agency profited greatly from its opposition to Trump’s immigration policies, even as it abandoned its Jewish mission. Now it’s gaslighting the public by denying reality.

Construction on the new border wall system project near Yuma, Ariz., June 3, 2020. Credit: Jerry Glaser, U.S. Government Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Construction on the new border wall system project near Yuma, Ariz., June 3, 2020. Credit: Jerry Glaser, U.S. Government Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden finally conceded that what was happening at America’s southern border is a “crisis,” a word that his administration had consistently refused to use when referring to the situation there which appears to be worsening every day. By Monday, White House flacks were trying to walk back the admission as just another Biden gaffe to be ignored or reinterpreted, but no one is being fooled.

Except that is, blind partisans or donors to HIAS—the agency that once played an essential role in aiding Jewish immigrants but now raises millions from Jews to advocate for policies that will only exacerbate the problem.

With The Washington Post reporting that in March, border crossings by illegals reached a 15-year-high, the situation is getting out of hand, especially since the government’s resources to deal with it are being overwhelmed. Of the 170,000 people entering the country without permission in March, some of those claiming asylum, whether justified or not, are being released into the United States, thereby adding to the growing number of illegals already here.

Even worse, since unaccompanied children (of whom 18,000 were taken into custody in March) can’t be returned to Mexico or sent out on their own, tens of thousands of them are being held in overcrowded facilities that are denying access to the press. And so, the administration’s reluctance to call it a “crisis” is irrelevant to the situation on the ground.

It’s all a result of Biden’s determination to reverse former President Donald Trump’s efforts to halt the flood of illegal immigrants into the country. While some of Trump’s policies—like the separation of families—were understandably unpopular, the Democrats’ promises to loosen restrictions, as well their pledges to legislate wholesale amnesty for illegals, has generated a predictable response. Since Trump’s defeat in November, the number of people from Central America trying to enter the United States without legal permission has grown every month.

That has been compounded by executive orders issued by the president that, among other things, are essentially reviving the infamous “catch and release” practice in which those caught at the border are allowed to stay in the country where they will await court proceedings that most ignore.

He’s also ended Trump’s policy of forcing those seeking asylum from Central American countries to stay on the other side of the border awaiting hearings. Most of these people are immigrants wanting a better life and claiming that gangs, crime and poverty have caused them to demand entrance to the United States rather than, as is traditionally the case, having a specific fear of persecution that would justify granting asylum.

Biden has also drastically limited the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track down those illegals who have gone through the legal process and are eligible for deportation. The new rules will prevent those guilty of all but the most heinous of crimes from being arrested.

The flood of those seeking to take advantage of those promises has created a logical problem at the border for which the government remains completely unprepared. This is not just a question of liberals who were outraged by Trump keeping “kids in cages” not caring now that someone they voted for is responsible for a situation that may be arguably worse. The desire to open the gates to more migrants has led to terrible problems for border communities and opened up those being sent across the border—a business largely controlled by Mexican drug cartels—to perils such as an increase in sex trafficking of children.

For those who are dedicated to not just overturning Trump’s policies but essentially opening the border, Biden’s been a bit of a disappointment. Among the loudest voices making that point is that of HIAS.

The group changed its name from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 2014 to just HIAS for good reason. In the last two decades, its efforts have shifted from aiding Jews immigrating to the United States to one profiting from government contracts to help resettle non-Jewish refugees. In recent years, however, it has become more of a political advocacy group. A feature in JTA noted that since 2017, it has doubled the amount of money it raises to an astonishing $90 million a year. It uses most of that cash now to agitate for policies that will, as Biden has done, open the floodgates to more of those who claim refugee status.

While Trump had drastically reduced the number of refugees taken into the United States to a historic low, HIAS and its left-wing allies want Biden to vastly increase the total of those accorded the legal status of refugees. While the group is relieved that Biden beat Trump, it’s not happy about the fact that the administration has been reluctant to announce more liberal policies on the issue.

The reason for that reluctance is obvious and is directly related to the way HIAS and others have, for ideological reasons, twisted the definition of a refugee.

Traditionally, refugees are people who are directly at risk of persecution or the threat of death should they be returned to their country of origin. An easy historical example of such a person would be those Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe who faced a death sentence if they were turned away. Those Jews from the former Soviet Union who wanted a chance at freedom in Israel or the West were also obviously qualified to be called refugees.

But according to HIAS and those arguing for Biden to throw caution to the winds and create an even bigger border disaster, virtually every citizen of the countries of Central America should qualify. It’s true that these nations face terrible problems of crime and corruption. The desire of those living there to move to the United States is understandable, even if America is not entirely free from the same troubles. Some residents of those countries might well qualify as refugees because of their specific situation. Still, the idea that every person who is unhappy with their lot where they are currently living should be considered a refugee renders the term meaningless.

The problem with HIAS’s advocacy is not just the way they have distorted the terms of the debate. It’s that they are utterly heedless of the consequences of their position.

Traditionally, Jews are reliable supporters of liberal immigration laws because they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Jewish religious law similarly requires believers to remember that they should treat “strangers” with respect because they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.

But does that mean that anyone who wants to enter the United States ought to be allowed in with no questions asked? Are its borders to be essentially erased, especially at a time of pandemic and the threat of terrorism is so real?

More to the point, are those whose ideas and statements have encouraged the current flood of illegals prepared to accept any responsibility for their role in creating this mess? Clearly not HIAS, which has stuck to a line in which it claims there is no border crisis.

HIAS claims to be speaking from the moral high ground from which it judges Americans who believe that encouraging illegal immigration trashes the rule of law as heartless xenophobes. Yet their role in setting the stage for a real crisis demands more than just another round of fundraising appeals based on false analogies to the Jewish past and efforts to open the borders, regardless of the consequences for the migrants or others who will be hurt by these policies. Their efforts to deny this is nothing more than gaslighting. While this stand is clearly good for business for HIAS, it has little to do with Jewish ethics or values, in addition to being terrible for the United States.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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