A program that many said would reinvigorate the Berkshires and increase the region’s diversity is now stuck in limbo as President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” sits undecided.
Approved in January, the program would resettle 50 refugees, primarily Syrians and Iranians. The agency who would be resettling refugees is the Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts. Each year, the group resettles over 230 refugees from around the world into the Springfield community – their new home.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost five million Syrians have fled to other countries to escape the Syrian civil war.
The United States took in more than 12,500 of those refugees in the last year, a policy that has created controversy around the country.
This project, that was heavily debated last year, would bring that work to the Berkshires.
Then President Trump signed an executive order last month that indefinitely suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting what the President has called “extreme vetting” of immigrants.
Titled “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” the executive order would start to make good on Trump’s promise to tighten borders and halt certain refugees from entering the United States.
In spite of the presidential action, Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts kept forging ahead with plans to resettle 50 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Pittsfield.
Then a federal judge in Seattle, acting on legal challenges from the states of Minnesota and Washington, temporarily blocked the order from being enforced nationwide.
The Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently rejected Trump’s bid to reinstate key elements of the executive order, seeming to make refugee resettlement a more concrete possibility.
That back and forth has left many involved in the program, and the refugees seeking to enter, at a loss and wondering what will happen.
Maxine J. Stein, President and CEO of Jewish Family Service, has explained that this constant turmoil has made it hard to plan for the future.
“Given the executive order and the fact that the number of overall refugees being resettled in the country has dropped from 110,000 to 50,000, we’re not sure when we will see the first refugees arriving in Pittsfield,” said Stein.
Plans were in the works for 50 refugees to come to the town in early spring. Now, officials say they’re hoping it will become a reality within this fiscal year.
Stein added that she believes Trumps order was “cruel and un-American.”
“Becoming a refugee is never a choice. Being a welcoming community and a welcoming country is a choice. Unfortunately, due to the recent actions taken by President Trump, we have temporarily deprived refugees from war-torn countries the opportunity to escape terror and rebuild their lives,” Stein said. “The suspension of the refugee resettlement program that brings hope to the desperate and vulnerable victims of persecution is cruel, un-American, un-Jewish and, un- welcoming.”
Stein pointed to the nation’s history as another reason why the group does the work it does.
“As HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees reminded us, our tradition in this country of welcoming refugees as New Americans is one of the things that has made America great,” Stein said. “It is a tradition worth fighting for.” HIAS was founded in 1881 and is formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, has been even more outspoken in his attacks of Trump over the decision that would halt the program.
“I cringed when I heard the Trump campaign and administration start using territory as a euphemism for religion,” Hetfield said. “It wasn’t just the thinly veiled attempt to institute a Muslim ban by another name. No, what made me wince was the sheer repetitiveness of it. We’ve seen this show before, and they haven’t even bothered to change the script.”
Hetfield pointed to the Emergency Quota Act, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, as an example how this type of act has happened, with awful consequences.
“That “emergency” act was supposed to be temporary, yet the national origins formula proved to be far too tempting for lawmakers to give up once they had it in place,” Hetfield said. “Not coincidentally, countries that had produced the most Jewish migrants for the previous four decades were given particularly low quotas.”
This temporary measure remained in use for more than four decades, until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally replaced the blanket restrictions on countries of origin with criteria based on an individual’s skills or family ties to U.S. citizens or residents.
“It took us 44 years to go back to treating immigrants like people rather than an undifferentiated mass who could be deemed undesirable on a whim,” Hetfield said.
Hetfield was also quick to address a question many have posed: why is a Jewish group so eager to help Muslims?
“We assist refugees today not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish,” Hetfield said. “Resettling refugees is a humanitarian mission. But for us, it is also an act of faith. It is something our religion calls on us to do, not in a general way, but specifically and repeatedly. Over and over, Jews are reminded to welcome the stranger, to protect the stranger, even to love the stranger.”
Pointing to the fact that his community, more than many others, knows the struggle of refugees that are denied, they know they must act.
“Religious discrimination dressed up as nationality restrictions was hateful when it was done to us in 1921. The sending back of Jewish refugees fleeing war and Nazi persecution on the German ocean liner the MS St. Louis was hateful when it was done to us in 1939,” Hetfield said. “We cannot remain silent as Muslim refugees are turned away just for being Muslim, just as we could not stand idly by when the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the 1930s and 40s.”
HIAS is far more than just talk. During the ban they worked hard to make sure that a family was reunited in dramatic fashion. A Syrian mother and her two young daughters, who were previously blocked by the travel ban, arrived at JFK airport on Feb. 2 with the help of HIAS.
The Asylees were traveling from Jordan to the U.S. to join family here on Saturday, January 28, when the news broke of the executive order barring all Syrian entries.
Despite having all the proper legal documents, the mother and daughters were prevented from boarding their connecting flight in Kiev. HIAS’ local office was alerted and the organization immediately began working to assist the family.
After several days of intense, high-level efforts to intervene, they are now safely here in the United States.
In response to the arrival, Hetfield said in a statement, “Unfortunately, this is just one of thousands of cases of innocent people who have been wrongly denied entry to the U.S. We believe these are the first Syrians to enter since the executive order was signed, and we are determined to make sure they are not the last. Moving forward, we will continue working tirelessly on as many cases of these as we can. As the Talmud teaches us: ‘To save one life is to save the world.’”
How does it work?
The Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts works with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the U.S. Department of State to run the replacement program.
In Springfield, some 250 refugees were accepted and in the coming year, little by little, 51 more are eyed for Pittsfield and the surrounding area.
The federal government subsidizes the program and gives each individual $925 to last three months, which Stein said isn’t enough for a first and last month rent, and security deposit required.
So, the group arranges a housing situation first with landlords, brings the refugees in, and then starts the three-month process of getting them into a situation where they can sustain themselves.
JFS also hosts innovative programs and comprehensive services assist refugees in becoming engaged U.S. citizens.
They work closely with them to ensure that each individual achieves independence and is a productive member of our society. They help refugees from around the world resettle here safely, learn English, gain employment and become valued, contributing members of our community.
“Refugees bring optimism, hope and a unique vibrancy that enriches our local community,” Stein said. “Our multi-cultural, multi-lingual staff provides comprehensive services which include case management, family reunification, employment, English as a Second Language, school and health support and counseling.”
Often supporters of the Trump ban have pointed to a lack of screening of refugees that enter this country, something that experts have said is flatly not true.
Here’s a sampling of things more likely to kill Americans than refugees, who have been responsible for exactly zero terrorism-related deaths in the United States in the 21st century: (1) second hand smoke (41,000 deaths annually); (2) alcohol-related car crashes (10,000 deaths annually); (3) gunshot (33,000 deaths annually); (4) husbands/male partners (1,600 deaths annually); (5) medical errors (250,000 deaths annually); (6) overdose or other unintentional poisoning (22,000 deaths annually), (7) child abuse or neglect (1,600 deaths annually); and (8) bicycle accidents (over 800 deaths annually).
As noted in the Washington Post, in 2016 Americans were more likely to be shot by a toddler with a gun than by a refugee.
Further, in a recent 60 Minutes interview Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, explained the long and step-by-step procedure to come to America.
“Of all the different ways to enter this country as an immigrant, doing so as a refugee is probably the most cumbersome and time-consuming,” Johnson said.
He explained that the process begins with the United Nations. Long before refugees make the journey to a new home, they are interviewed multiple times by the U.N. for their vital statistics — including where they came from and who they know — and they are given an iris scan to establish their identity. After that initial assessment, the U.N. then refers refugees to a country for resettlement.
If that country is the U.S., a State Department resettlement center takes over, runs background checks, and creates a file on the refugee.
From there, the Department of Homeland Security, led by specially trained interrogators, conducts additional interviews looking for gaps or inconsistencies in their stories. All that information is then run through U.S. security databases for any red flags. If approved, the refugee goes through medical screening by a team of doctors prior to arriving in the country.
The entire process, Johnson told “60 Minutes”, takes between 18 and 24 months.
Also, less than half of one percent of those from Syria who resettle in the United States are single young men. Those who are qualify as among the most vulnerable, either because of severe medical needs or as a result of being minors who don’t have family to support them.
The Impact of Refugees
Groups that support refugees are quick to tell the success stories of towns that have used a program, like the one Pittsfield hopes to have.
One group that tells those stories is Welcoming America who leads a movement of inclusive communities becoming more prosperous by making everyone feel like they belong.
One of their success stories focuses on how Nashville has not only survived allowing in refugees, they have thrived because they do.
Nashville is a city that made a decision to embrace New Americans and invest in their community as a vibrant, international hub. The results are music to many people’s ears.
In December of 2014 Nashville was recognized as a beacon of hope for the nation by the President. Nashville has not only embraced its rapidly growing immigrant population, it has also thrived as a result of its transformation.
Between 2006 and 2009, Nashville’s climate for immigrants was transformed from a particularly toxic one to one that embraces immigrants, and the city and its residents have reaped the economic benefits. This transformation was due to the work of numerous actors from the business, immigrant, and religious communities, among others.
A leading force in this transformation was Welcoming Tennessee, a project of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) and the inspiration for all subsequent welcoming initiatives and Welcoming America. Welcoming Tennessee recognized that the demographics of Tennessee, like much of America, were changing quickly and that long-time residents needed to meet and understand their new immigrant neighbors. They undertook an initiative that mobilized local leaders, promoted a positive message about newcomers, and brought communities together to build relationships – three techniques that have since become the hallmarks of the receiving communities approach.
Today, the city has seen a proliferation of immigrant integration efforts across the community, such as a partnership with USCIS to share citizenship information in a free setting and a Parent Ambassadors program, which pairs New Americans navigating the school system with long-time residents who speak the same language and come from a similar background. Local government programs like MyCity Academy, a model now being replicated nationwide, empowers New Americans to understand and participate in Nashville’s government.
“When immigrants pick your city, that is a great honor,” said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who opened an Office of New Americans to continue the city’s efforts to integrate newcomers during 2014 National Welcoming Week.
While many factors have contributed to Nashville’s growing economic strength, civic and business leaders have made it clear that Nashville’s ascendency could not have been possible without a deliberate shift toward a more welcoming climate. Data from a survey of business leaders conducted by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and commissioned by Welcoming America affirms that the business community today values the role of immigrants as a source of prosperity for the city.
According to survey results, over 70 percent of respondents believe that productivity is positively impacted by the role of immigrants in the Nashville economy, and a majority of respondents felt that most industries were “very positively” impacted by the role of immigrants in the Nashville area.
So, will Pittsfield have the success of Nashville? Who knows. But leaders of the local groups are hoping that the city will take a chance.
“I’m very optimistic that Pittsfield will become a refugee resettlement community. When they will be here, we don’t know,” said Stein.