Refugee crisis continues to grow, HIAS director says

Refugee crisis continues to grow, HIAS director says

Lunch and Learn at Beth Sholom in Teaneck will focus on Jewish responsibility to ‘the stranger’

Mark Hetfield
Mark Hetfield

When we spoke earlier this week, Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, was traveling through Central and South America, visiting some of the organization’s many offices in the region. The number of those offices continues to grow.

That’s not surprising. According to Mr. Hetfield, the number of refugees and displaced people across the world has grown to more than 70 million. That’s more than there has ever been, at other times in history.

Mr. Hetfield will speak about the immigration crisis at Congregation Beth Sholom’s Lunch and Learn program on March 7. (See box.)

“We’ve long had programs in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama for refugees from Colombia,” Mr. Hetfield said. But now, with the refugee crisis in Venezuela, the organization has had to create new centers to handle the situation. And while thousands of refugees are streaming out of Venezuela, others continue to come in.

Only one year ago, HIAS had 45 offices across the world; today it has 71. Most are in Central and South America and Mexico. “Our office in Ecuador has 250 staff members, with 16 offices across the country,” Mr. Hetfield said. He noted that in the United States, Venezuelans comprise the number one asylum-seeking group, “but nobody seems to be noticing this crisis.”

HIAS also has offices in Africa, Israel, and the United States. “We aspire to be where there is a refugee crisis,” Mr. Hetfield said.

The refugee situation “started to go south with the Syrian crisis, which is still the largest in the world; then Venezuela, then the Rohingya fleeing Burma,” he said; what became evident is that “no solutions were being found.”

While in earlier years the United States assisted countries that were taking in refugees or resettled them within its own borders, this is no longer the case. In addition, he said, the ravages of climate change, which cause agricultural problems relating to water access, “definitely contribute to the violence that results in displacement.” HIAS, he said, focuses on those people who are fleeing violence.

Unfortunately, he noted, “All international and domestic law is basically responding to the problems of World War II. It hasn’t been updated to reflect realities. And people are afraid to revisit it because of the fear that if we reopen it, it will be contracted rather than expanded.”

Asked if there is cause for optimism in any region, Mr. Hetfield said that “to solve the problem you need a political solution.” Since there is progress in that area in the southern Sudan, “maybe the people in Darfur will be able to go home one day.” He stressed the “maybe” in that sentence, however, and added that “there is no end in sight in Venezuela or Colombia.”

In the United States, with one exception, HIAS offers services in conjunction with local partners, such as Jewish Family Service, Mr. Hetfield said. That exception is New York City, where it provides services directly. It’s different overseas. There, he said, “we do it ourselves, with the assistance of the government, the U.N., and private contributions.” He expects HIAS to spend $80 million this year, its largest budget to date.

While the organization “is very visible and emphasizes our Jewish identity, we are looking to do even more of that,” he said. “What makes us unique is our connection to the Jewish community in our history. We want to more systematically convey that message to our clients and global staff,” many of whom are not Jewish.

HIAS’s staff members come from a range of backgrounds. He mentioned the head of one of its offices in Colombia. “Yael’s grandparents were refugees from Europe in 1940 who fled to Colombia,” he said. Later, the family was forced to flee Cali for Venezuela, and now they are leaving Caracas to go back to Colombia. Yael’s family were refugees, she has been one herself, and now she helps refugees. “She personifies our history,” he said.

We used to be actively engaged in finding solutions to the refugee problem in the United States, Mr. Hetfield said. Under President Carter, some 207,000 refugees were permitted to settle here every year; now, President Donald J. Trump has set a ceiling of 18,000. “And we won’t make that ceiling in spite of the incredible need,” Mr. Hetfield said. “They’re not letting them come in. Canada and Australia resettle more people than we do.”

And that’s just refugees. “They’re stacking the deck against asylum seekers,” he continued. “If you ask for asylum, you’re pushed back and told to come back later for a hearing, or sent to Guatemala and told to wait there or put in a detention center. That’s a terrible choice of options, used to send the message that you’re not welcome. It’s a disincentive.”

While Mr. Hetfield acknowledged that no country can take in everyone who asks to be admitted, he cited a study done early in the Trump administration — and later suppressed — demonstrating that refugees contribute far more than they take. While they may need more help in the short term, over a 15-year period they contributed 63 billion more in taxes than they received in services.

“The Torah says 36 times that we must welcome and love the stranger.” It’s a command repeated more frequently than any other biblical directive, Mr. Hetfield said. He attributes this to the fact that it is not an easy commandment to follow. In fact, he said, HIAS was created because during most of Jewish history Jews were forced to resettle. “We’ve moved from Exodus to Leviticus,” he said. “We’ve got to learn from our own experience and apply it.”

Who: Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

What: Will speak at a Lunch and Learn session on “Seeking Justice for Refugees: The Newest Challenges Facing HIAS.”

When: On Saturday, March 7, from 12:45 to 2 p.m., after Shabbat services and light lunch

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Avenue, Teaneck

For lunch reservations: Go to Reservations are requested and online donations would be appreciated.

More information: Call 201-833-2620 or email

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