Since President Trump issued what critics referred to as a “Muslim ban” in 2017 targeting refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries and sparking massive protests at airports across the country, liberal Jewish groups, buoyed by Jewish history, have been on the frontline of resisting the administration’s exclusionary stance towards immigrants.
In some of those protests, Jews held aloft emotionally freighted placards emblazoned with the words “Never again, never is now,” and invoking memories of the Holocaust.
Now, with the recent announcement that the administration will be lowering the cap on refugees allowed to enter the country this year to 30,000 — the lowest cap since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980 — Jewish organizations are again sounding the alarm.
“The U.N. refugee agency says that there are 1,428,000 refugees who need resettlement, who are outside their countries of origin, who have no other solution, who need resettlement as a solution,” said Mark Hetfield, CEO and president of HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s policies towards immigrants and refugees. “Here we are, one of the largest resettlement countries in the world and we’re only willing to take 30,000 when the needs are 1.4 million?” he told The Jewish Week.
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has lowered the cap on refugees. Trump inherited a refugee cap of 110,000 from the Obama administration, which was cut to 50,000 shortly after Trump took office. The number was cut further to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018 before the recent announcement lowering it to 30,000 for 2019. In spite of the cap set at 45,000 for this year, the administration had only admitted 19,899 as of Aug. 31, according to data from the State Department.
On the heels of the refugee cap, the Trump administration announced a separate policy targeting immigrants who receive welfare assistance from the federal government. The proposed rule would bar immigrants using programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from remaining in the country permanently. As rumors of the new policy spread in immigrant communities, Politico reported that some immigrants are already turning down benefits for fear of losing green cards.
In recent days, organizations representing a broad swath of the American Jewish establishment have condemned the refugee cap announcement. “The severe diminution of the U.S. refugee program is at odds with core American values, let alone policy that for decades has established our country as an exemplar for welcoming those refugees fleeing documented persecution and fearing for their lives,” David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in a statement. “At a time when the number of refugees is increasing around the world, this administration decision is especially regrettable.”
David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said: “This refugee admissions cap, which is the lowest in the program’s history, confirms our fear that the U.S. is shutting its doors at a time when there is a dire need to provide refuge for people fleeing violence and persecution. It harkens back to a time when our country turned away desperate refugees, including Jews, fleeing genocide. We urge the administration to reconsider so that our country can live up to its highest aspirations and ideals, not its worst fears.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the announcement, invoking memories of the Holocaust. “History will look back on the government’s decision to cap refugee admissions at a historic low of 30,000 as a sad moment for the United States. The world continues to face the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and we believe this decision is inexcusable and unconscionable,” Greenblatt wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “The Trump administration must stop its attacks on the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program and welcome 75,000 new refugees in 2019.”
Bend the Arc’s CEO Stosh Cotler said in a statement that the administration’s move “is an extraordinary act of policymaking, grounded only in cruelty and xenophobia,” adding that the administration should have consulted with Congress on adjusting the number of refugees allowed into the country.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, condemned the announcement and is calling on rabbis to speak to their congregations about this issue.
“Right now we’re in the middle of one of the largest refugee crises in history, we have people who are fleeing violence in Syria, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “The U.S. has an obligation that’s codified in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to do its part to bring in people who are seeking a safe place.”
Even the family rabbi of President Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller took to the pulpit on Rosh HaShanah this year to castigate his former congregant, the chief architect of the administration’s policies on immigration, for his apparent callousness to the plight of refugees. “Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate people,” the rabbi said, according to the Guardian. “The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my, or our, Jewish message.”
Even some immigration hawks have been critical of the new policy. Stephen Steinlight, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which defines its mission as “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” said the Trump administration deserves credit for looking into reforming the immigration system but finds the lowered number “troubling.”
“It makes me uncomfortable as an American first and as a Jew second,” Steinlight, who is in favor of a tighter vetting process for refugees, told The Jewish Week. “We’ve got a real problem with uncontrolled immigration, but I don’t think the way you deal with uncontrolled immigration is by slapping an arbitrarily low figure on refugees.”
Along with other Jewish organizations including T’ruah, HIAS is now lobbying members of Congress to urge the president to raise the cap before the Sept. 30 deadline. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is planning a day of action on Capitol Hill in October to discuss immigration issues with members of Congress. The “presidential determination,” as the refugee cap is known, is set by the executive branch in consultation with Congress and is determined for the coming fiscal year. During the Obama administration, the cap was increased to a high of 110,000 in 2017, with the administration admitting close to that number each year. Hetfield says the nine resettlement agencies, including HIAS, have the capacity to resettle at least 200,000 refugees per year, the number they were advocating for before the Trump administration.
The issue seems to be one of the few political causes left that the majority of the Jewish community can rally around.
The Orthodox Union was widely criticized when it presented Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a plaque that carried the Hebrew version of the verse “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” in the midst of the family separation crisis at the border. Following an outcry from inside and outside of the Orthodox community, the OU deleted pictures of the event from its social media and lent its name to a letter from 27 Jewish organizations that condemned the family separation policy. The OU has since signed on to a letter, circulated last month, urging the administration to increase the refugee cap to 75,000. Agudath Israel of America, the charedi umbrella group, also signed onto the letter but declined to comment for this article.
HIAS has been increasing its focus on advocacy since 2015, when then-candidate Trump floated the idea of instituting a Muslim ban on the campaign trail. As a result of the Trump administration’s efforts to admit fewer refugees and immigrants and the increased global awareness of the refugee crisis as a result of the Syrian civil war, Hetfield believes the Jewish community’s support for immigrants and refugees is at a record high. “I have never seen as much support for refugees in the Jewish community in my lifetime as I’m seeing right now,” Hetfield told The Jewish Week.
“This administration has been very consistent in its vilification of refugees and immigrants,” said Hetfield. “For us to lower the number like that with such incredible capacity out there and interest in resettling refugees and welcoming them is unconscionable.”