The refugee dilemma: Fighting to defend the defenseless


On Nov. 19, less than a week after the deadly series of terrorist attacks in Paris, Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the 134-year-old refugee resettlement organization, was summoned to the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. The topic was the swelling Syrian refugee crisis.

Hetfield, 48, a lawyer and policy specialist in refugee and immigration resettlement, had been tracking the Syrian crisis since it began in 2011. What started as a civil war between Syrian president Bashar Assad and a handful of rebel groups seeking to unseat him had morphed in large part into a religious war with the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) leading the rebellion, internally displacing 11 million Syrians and pushing another 4.1 million out of the country.  

Hetfield hoped to convince Congress to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees “over and above” the United States’ annual refugee quota of 70,000, a number far exceeding the additional 10,000 Syrians President Barack Obama had already agreed to welcome. (In Hetfield’s address to Congress, he called the American gesture “tepid.”) Hetfield knew a green light was unlikely: In the week after the Paris attacks, the revelation that a fake or stolen Syrian passport may have been used by one of the terrorists to infiltrate the refugees streaming into Europe set off panic among some Americans that Syrian refugees are indistinguishable from the Islamic State terrorists they are fleeing. As the U.S. election cycle continues to heat up, the refugees have become a political flashpoint, with distortions and fear-mongering shifting focus away from their desperate situation.

As civil discourse last week descended into talk of Muslim registries and permitting only Syrian Christians to enter the U.S., Hetfield prepared to fight the toxic political climate of xenophobia and fear. 

“Politicians who fixate on the refugee crisis — it’s perplexing,” Hetfield said from his office in New York the night before his hearing. “They do it because it’s easy. Refugees are defenseless; they don’t have a constituency, they don’t vote. And it’s lot easier dealing with refugees than it is dealing with ISIS.”

The day before Hetfield testified, a number of U.S. governors had announced that their states would not host Syrian refugees, prompting a bill in Congress that would make passage into the United States even harder (the bill later passed, although President Obama has promised to veto it). National polling revealed that a majority of Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to taking in any Syrian refugees.

“It’s totally unacceptable and irrational to us,” Hetfield said. He was especially disappointed in the governors. “They just haven’t done their research,” he said. “Every refugee [admitted to the U.S.] is vetted right side up, upside down and sideways — they’re vetting these people to death. It would be so painful and so difficult and so slow for [a terrorist] to go through that, they’d have to be nuts. There are so many other, easier ways to get into this country.”

Hetfield earned his law degree from Georgetown University and practiced immigration law at a Washington, D.C., law firm before moving to the nonprofit sector. He joined HIAS in 1989, where he has spent the majority of his career, working in Rome, New York and now Washington. His credentials in refugee resettlement work also include a stint as senior adviser for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he directed a study on the treatment of asylum seekers. He also worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington and Haiti. 

Hetfield said the current Syrian crisis is among the worst humanitarian disasters he has seen in his 25-year career. Most Syrian refugees not only have the requisite “well-founded fear of persecution,” they have a well-founded fear of slavery, torture or death. Desperate to flee Islamic State barbarism, as well as Assad’s indiscriminate bombing and air strikes by the U.S., Russia and other Western countries, many families braved the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. This year alone, an estimated 3,329 people died journeying toward freedom. 

At the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing, Hetfield pointedly described HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as an “agency of the American Jewish community.” Founded in 1881, HIAS was created to help Jews fleeing pogroms and other acts of violence in Russia and Eastern Europe, and calls itself the oldest refugee protection agency in the world. Although the matter of allowing Syrian refugees to immigrate to the U.S. has found both support and antipathy among American Jews, Hetfield believes Jews have a moral obligation to help. 

“Let’s face it, people turned away [refugees] because they were Jewish in the 1930s,” he said. “Refugees were not desirable, and it was specifically Jewish refugees that were not desirable.”

A Syrian refugee boy is seen shortly after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees, Nov. 20, 2015. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The current crisis has inspired a wave of comparisons between the plight of Syrian refugees and Jews fleeing Nazism. The Washington Post unearthed a 1938 article from the British Daily Mail archives lamenting, “The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.” The Guardian noted the “rabid intolerance” with which Great Britain treated Jewish refugees in need. And in the U.S., the American Institute of Public Opinion found that, in 1939, 61 percent of Americans were opposed to taking in even 10,000 Jewish children. The same sort of xenophobia that has accompanied talk of Syrian refugees — conflating their identity as Muslims with terrorism — also afflicted the Jews. 

“Part of [the] hostility [toward Jews] was fueled … by stereotypes of the refugees as harbingers of a dangerous ideology,” The Washington Post reported, noting that many Europeans perceived Jews to be inclined toward communism and “anarchist violence.”

“Perhaps as many as half a million German Jewish asylum seekers were turned away by authorities ahead of the outbreak of World War II,” the Post reported. According to the Guardian, the only countries that took in Jewish refugees were Canada (5,000), Australia (10,000), South Africa (6,000) and the U.S. (33,000 before the war; 124,000 during the war), bringing the total to less than 200,000, while 6 million perished in the Holocaust.

“So, oddly enough, we find ourselves to be in solidarity with Muslim refugees,” Hetfield said. “Particularly when they’re targeted because they are Muslim. That makes us even more sympathetic, as a Jewish agency, to their plight.”

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) President E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney specializing in the reclamation of Jewish goods stolen by the Nazis and a central character in the recent film “Woman in Gold,” wrote a Facebook post citing connections between the Jewish plight of the 20th century and the Syrian plight of today.

“Whenever there is anti-immigrant rhetoric, I am reminded of how our country refused entry to so many Jews during the Holocaust,” Schoenberg wrote. “Our own State Department instructed American consulates to withhold even the limited visas permitted under our strict immigration quotas. … ”

Schoenberg recalled, in particular, a satirical ad film director and producer Ben Hecht took out in the Los Angeles Times declaring, “For Sale to Humanity: 70,000 Jews” — that is on display at LAMOTH. Published in 1943, the ad called for the U.S. to rescue 70,000 Jews from Romania, promising, facetiously, that there would be “no spies smuggled in among these Jews.” “If there are,” read the ad copy, “you can shoot them.”

Then, as now, the stateless refugee was considered a dangerous threat. 

“Obviously, many American[s] in 1943 felt the same as many do today — that we cannot risk admitting enemy agents among the throng of refugees,” Schoenberg wrote. “During World War II, this type of fear meant that millions of honest, innocent people were unable to escape their murderers. … I hope we don’t make the same mistake again.”

After the Paris attacks, Bruno Stagno Ugarte, the French-based Human Rights Watch executive director for advocacy, took to the airwaves to debunk the myth that one of the Paris attackers was Syrian. “That’s a false association,” he told MSNBC. “The evidence points to the fact that … this ghastly attack here on [Nov. 13] was homegrown terrorism. It was planned, organized and executed by people born and raised in Europe [and] does not discredit the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are fleeing violence. These are people that need our compassion; these are people that need international protection.”

“It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

In Congress, however, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared a need for caution. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said. “[S]o we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

Already, all refugees hoping to enter the U.S. are subjected to rigorous security screenings that can take from 18 months to two years to complete. Much of this is the result of a program overhaul that took place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the Department of Homeland Security inherited the refugee program from the Justice Department’s immigration office. “Their entire focus is on making sure we’re safe,” Hetfield said of Homeland Security. 

The typical refugee screening includes a series of intensive, detail-oriented interviews that are recorded and sent to Washington, where each is vetted for consistency and truthfulness. Refugees are also required to submit a set of fingerprints, which are checked against law enforcement databases and intelligence agencies, international and domestic. “The [Paris terrorist] with the Syrian passport was actually French, and he was a criminal,” Hetfield said, noting differences in the procedures for U.S. refugees versus European ones. “In [the U.S.], a case like that would have been picked up. In Europe, [migrants] are showing up uninvited — they’re asylum seekers. So they can’t be vetted until after they are already on European soil.” 

According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, the U.S. has taken in 784,000 refugees since 9/11. “Only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism related charges,” Canadian politician and historian Michael Ignatieff wrote in the New York Review of Books.

“Refugees who arrive in the United States have undergone extensive security vetting prior to setting foot on U.S. soil,” Hetfield told Congress. “Refugees to Europe are not screened until after they enter. This is the distinction. It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” 

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) introduced eye scans of the iris into the refugee program, mainly for identification purposes in the distribution of aid. These days, however, Hetfield said the practice can also serve other important identification and tracking purposes — with nearly 100 percent accuracy. By this point, the scrupulousness of U.S refugee screenings has severely slowed, or in worse cases stopped, the ability to process refugees. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, only 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. “So they’re not, like, pouring in,” Hetfield told the Journal.

He was blunt in his address to Congress: “[T]he security protocols in place [today] are stronger than anything I have seen in my 26 years of working in this field. So strong that it has made the refugee resettlement program into more fortress than ambulance, causing massive backlogs of holds of legitimately deserving and unnecessarily suffering refugees.” 

Where else can refugees go? Camps in Jordan and Turkey are massively overwhelmed, and aid is dwindling. An underfunded World Food Program has forced food rations down to 50 cents per person per day, and the UNHCR has amassed only half its projected budget for Syrian needs. A cease-fire in Syria does not seem likely anytime soon (a prospect Ignatieff’s New York Review of Books piece called a “cruel mirage”), and even if one comes, the country has been ravaged, leaving little left to return to in Syria.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939.

If U.S. allies such as France and Germany are left alone to shoulder the majority burden of the refugee crisis, that, too, could lead to disaster, empowering far-right nationalist groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front that are calling for closed borders. “If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the U.S. and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights,” Ignatieff wrote.

The UNHCR has asked the U.S. to take in half of the 130,000 most vulnerable refugees they’ve identified at a Turkish camp — among them orphans, disabled and the badly injured. But in the current climate, as calls to monitor Muslim immigrants or accept only non-Muslims into the country have grown, this request seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. 

The path is brighter after refugees are inside the U.S. Despite protests from Congress and governors, only the president and the Department of Homeland Security can determine a refugee’s path once he or she is resettled in America. State legislators cannot refuse refugees placed by Homeland Security in their state. And even if a state is hostile to refugees, refusing aid or other subsidies available through the refugee program (such as federal money for public education), they are still obligated to help refugees, who have legal protections and can ultimately decide to live wherever they want.

“Refugees have rights,” Hetfield said. “Unlike an undocumented immigrant, a refugee has the right to be here, and they have access to certain public benefits that other noncitizens may not have access to.” 

In Hetfield’s view, the problem with hostile rhetoric, particularly when it comes from state leaders, is that it sets the tone for the state. 

“We’re seeing a similar thing in Israel,” Hetfield said, “where the Israeli government sets the tone for asylum seekers they’re getting from Africa, calling them ‘infiltrators’ and ‘illegal work migrants.’ That tone trickles down and has an impact on way people are treated. Our concern is that you’re going to see a similar thing happen here, now that governors are say[ing] ‘Muslims are terrorists until proven otherwise — particularly Syrian Muslims.’ It creates a very poisonous environment.” 

Last week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington issued a statement drawing parallels between World War II and today, calling on Americans “to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group.”

“Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism … we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.

“It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.”

But even in the United States, distrust exists between Jews and Muslims. Hetfield does not deny this tension. “I don’t want to be totally Pollyannaish about it. Some Muslims we work with make assumptions about us,” he said, citing occasional verbal clashes between right-leaning Jews and pro-BDS Muslims who accuse Jews of oppressing Palestinians. “Those two sides reinforce one another,” he added. But antagonism “is definitely the exception, not the rule.” 

Hetfield said he is not bothered by the idea of helping Muslims. “We resettle people who need help. We do it on the basis of their protection needs, and that’s it. That’s the criteria of a refugee.”

What he fears most is that all this xenophobia is playing directly into the hands of the so-called Islamic State. “That’s a tactic of ISIS,” Hetfield said. “They’re trying to turn us against helping these refugees; they’re trying to make it look like the West hates all Muslims, to make them more vulnerable to recruitment and susceptible to that psychological warfare. They want to terrorize us; they want to scare us; they want to make us hate Muslims.

“That’s the most dangerous thing being done right now. The real threat to our national security and national character is the xenophobia and anti-Islam rhetoric that all these leaders are spewing.”

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