Refugee Policy An Affront To Jewish Values — And History


If there’s any group that understands the critical value of America’s role as a refuge for those fleeing oppression and genocide, it’s the Jewish community. Many of our ancestors found a safe haven here in the face of pogroms and horrific poverty, but so many others died because the doors were slammed shut thanks to waves of xenophobic nationalism in the decades before Germany tried to eliminate European Jewry.

So it’s hardly a surprise that a number of Jewish groups have spoken out forcefully against the Trump administration’s sharp reduction in this country’s refugee program. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that refugee admissions will be capped at 30,000 in fiscal year 2019 — the lowest number since the Refugee Act was enacted in 1980. The 2018 ceiling was 45,000, but only half that number of potential refugees were actually resettled.

This comes as the number of displaced people worldwide approaches 68 million, according to HIAS, the Jewish organization focusing on immigration and refugee issues. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that many will die if they cannot find safe havens, and countless others will survive in the most dire circumstances.

The cut is part of a broader trend — the intensifying targeting of all immigrants and refugees, legal and undocumented, in an angry America that seems eager for scapegoats. Politicians have always sought cheap political advantage by scapegoating foreigners. In recent years the targets have mostly been Hispanic and Muslim, but once legitimized, bigotry is not easily confined.

It’s the same politically motivated impulse that closed the door to so many desperate European Jews in the early years of the 20th century, when official U.S. policy deemed Eastern European immigrants and refugees a threat to American society.

“What President Trump has done is effectively slam the door on thousands of people, instead of giving them hope,” said Mark Hetfield, the HIAS president and CEO, in a statement last week. “We are abdicating our responsibility to smaller and poorer countries that, by sheer accident of geography, host the majority of the world’s refugees. As a nation we should be ashamed of this low number.”

The sharp reduction in refugee admissions, along with the growing rage directed at immigrants already here, is an affront to Jewish values and an unspeakably painful reminder of how so many of our own ancestors perished because they were denied refuge.