An attorney in Chicago on Jan. 30. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

Refugee order demystified: Q-and-A with Melanie Nezer of HIAS


Once the Jewish refugee population slowed to a trickle in the late 20th century, HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, turned its attention to refugees of any faith and background. Since then, it’s been at the center of the American Jewish community’s response to global crises such as those in Syria and Sudan.

And somewhere near the center of HIAS’ operation is Melanie Nezer, its vice president of policy and advocacy. In the middle of an extremely busy week on Jan. 30, Nezer spoke to the Jewish Journal to clarify some of the finer points of the executive order signed days before by President Donald Trump, sharply restricting the inflow of refugees to the U.S.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: Who does this order apply to? 

Melanie Nezer: The provisions that we’re really concerned about and are looking at is the 90-day ban on admissions or entry from the seven designated countries [Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya], which bars anyone, regardless of their immigration status, from coming back to this country from those countries. And the impact of that has been even people with green cards who live here, and students who live here, and businesspeople who live here, have not been able to come home, and won’t be able to come home for 90 days. There’s some indication that maybe people with green cards will be able to come back, but the application of this order has been so chaotic and inconsistent that we don’t know that that will happen.

The second provision is the 120-day ban on refugee admissions, and that applies to refugees from anywhere in the world. So it’s these seven countries plus any other countries that refugees are coming from — 120-day ban. … [These are] people who have waited for many, many years, gone through all of the security checks that we require — interviews, filling out forms, clearing security checks, clearing medical checks, getting fingerprinted, in the case of some people, getting iris scans. We have the most intense refugee security vetting in the world, and refugees are the most intensely vetted people who come to the United States. So these are people who waited for years, maybe. After being in a refugee camp for many years or maybe living in a city, in precarious situations, they were selected to come to the United States because we decided they can’t remain safely where they are. We’ve put them through all of these requirements. Some of them have family members here. This has taken many years. They’re finally told, “You’ve cleared everything, you can travel, here’s the date.” If they live in a refugee camp, they’ve sold or given everything away. There’s no place for them to go back to, because the moment they vacate where they live, somebody else takes it. They’ve made their way to the city to get on a plane, or maybe they’re living in Amman, Jordan, or they’re living in a small town in Turkey. They’ve gotten rid of their apartment. They’ve gotten rid of everything they own. They go to the airport, and basically that golden ticket that they’ve gotten has just been ripped up. And they haven’t done anything wrong. The only difference is that the president signed this order. That’s the only thing that changed. President Trump is the only thing that changed, and the rug has been pulled out from under them, for no reason. And these are people who’ve suffered enough.

And then the third piece of it is the reduction of the refugee admissions number from 110,000 [in fiscal year 2017], which is what the State Department and some other agencies like HIAS were planning for, to 50,000. And of course, that’s 60,000 lives that are impacted there — people who won’t find safety.

JJ: So people who are in the process of seeking refugee status in the United States, are just completely stranded by this. Is that correct?

MN: We had a court order issued on Friday night (Jan. 27) by a New York federal district court that applied to all of the airports, a nationwide order [mandating that refugees in U.S. airports not be sent back]. And since then there have been many other federal courts where other airports are located that issued orders. It’s our understanding that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are ignoring those orders. … In a normal administration, when an executive order is issued, you have a legal team and a policy team from all of the relevant agencies — so in this case it would be Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, maybe Department of Justice — doing the legal and policy analysis before its implemented. In this case, you had this president put his name on a policy that nobody knows really where it came from or how it was created or who had input into it. It certainly couldn’t have been the secretaries because most of them haven’t even been confirmed yet. And then, a minute later, you have the front line staff at the airports deciding on their own, individually how to implement it. And you have people, from what we hear, asking hours’ worth of questions to people who are legally entitled to come into this country about their religious beliefs.

JJ: It sounds like the order created a tremendous degree of confusion at the nation’s airports. Is there a sense of how many people are caught up in airports right now in the U.S.?

MN: We have no idea. We think people are still being held today, but at no airport has CBP [Customs and Border Protection] allowed attorneys to talk to anyone in secondary inspection. As far as we know, attorneys have had no access, and they are showing up to request it. Hundreds of attorneys have showed up at airports to try and speak with people and help them. But they’ve actually been blocked. … At Dulles Airport, in Virginia … Customs and Border Protection was ordered to allow access to counsel, and it seems CBP is violating that. There have been a number of orders, injunctions, and they’re all written a little differently, but one in Virginia specifically ordered access to counsel, and that is being violated.

JJ: What is HIAS doing at this moment in terms of responding to the situation?

MN: Before the order was signed, we were trying to reach the administration in any way we could, but were unable to get through. We were trying to influence the policy, as were many others. But it doesn’t look like we had any success in doing that. Of course, we are a refugee resettlement agency, so we are carefully tracking all of our cases, figuring out which ones had their flight canceled, which ones may be able to proceed this week because they’re in transit and there may be an exception for them. And then, if there is an exception and they’re allowed to get on the plane, [we’re] making sure that CBP doesn’t detain them and lets them in. So we’re keeping track of that. There’s, like, a million things we’re trying to do to respond to this kind of moment in our national history, to speak up, but also on a practical level, to help the refugees that we serve, their families who are here, and our partners in communities that receive refugees to deal with this situation.

JJ: There’s this tremendous national infrastructure that HIAS maintains. What happens to that when there are no more refugees for 120 days? Are people going to get laid off?

MN: The day after the election, we started thinking about that, because these were campaign promises that President Trump made. We didn’t quite envision the chaos that would be in the wake of this approach, that this would be unleashed … didn’t, obviously, have any idea what the scope of this would be. So we have been thinking about that, trying to plan for it, anticipating that yes, there certainly could be a possibility that we would have to shrink the network and our staff. That was somewhat theoretical, but obviously something we were thinking about. But since Friday, we haven’t been thinking about that, because we’ve only been thinking about how to help our clients, the refugees — and also, to share this news with the hundreds of synagogues and individuals across the country that have volunteered to furnish apartments, put up the beds, put up the cribs, put the dishes in the kitchen, fill the refrigerators. I mean, we have people across the country that were and are ready and willing to welcome refugees, and they are crushingly disappointed. Certainly you can’t equate it to what the refugees themselves are going through and their family members, but refugee resettlement is for many — and many of the resettlement agencies are faith-based — it’s an expression of faith. It’s a way you can put your faith into action and this order deprives us of the ability to do that.

JJ: What do we know about the exemption for religious minorities that’s mentioned in the order?

MN: From what we understand, there’s no procedures for implementing those exemptions. Certainly, CBP is not implementing them, as far as we know. We’ll see if some of the refugees that were in transit will be able to come [under the exemption]. We know that refugees from the seven blocked countries can’t come, but perhaps others will be able to travel. But in terms of the religious exemption, there are no procedures, and we will have to wait and see if there’s any guidance on how that gets implemented.

JJ: What are you saying to people who argue that these refugees coming in are not like us — which is to say, that they’re not like Jewish refugees of the 1930s, a frequent analogy — and that they can’t be vetted?

MN: I would argue that they’re exactly like us. During World War II, there was no Jewish ban. There was nothing called a Jewish ban in law, but in fact there was a Jewish ban. Many thousands of visas that were available to Germans were not issued when they could have been issued to German Jews. Why? And if you do any Googling of the newspapers back then, it was because of suspicion, fear, a sense that people could exploit the refugee program by sneaking in even though they had nefarious intent in our country. So the exact same things that were said then are being said now. And granted, it’s legitimate to fear terrorism.

There’s no question, and we have to fight terrorism. But these are people who are fleeing terrorism. And they are vetted for many, many months. We have way more information on these refugees than anyone had on refugees in the last century. Refugees don’t just flee from their country and the next day get on a plane. They are in camps, and they are registered with the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and they are in cities, and they receive support, and U.N. and U.S. officials are very familiar with who they are over this period of time. And then, to the extent of the security screenings, if there’s any question about a person, they get screened out. There are 65 million displaced people in the world. We’re not going to have a problem filling our slots. … The victims of Islamic terrorism and violence around the world — no one suffers more than the people in those countries. And the fact that we would be willing to close our doors, particularly to children who have not been in school for many years, and when they get here, they’re so happy to be here and so ready to go to school and absorb everything, and absorb all the freedoms and the life and the safety that they have here — I don’t know how we could, as Jews, not want to respond to that.

JJ: Is this order affecting Jews right now personally, and moving forward, do you anticipate that there will be Jewish communities impacted by this executive order?

MN: There’s still Jews coming from Iran and Ukraine that will be affected by this. So we don’t know how that’s going to play out, but they’re certainly not getting on planes any time soon.

JJ: I know that HIAS is an official partner of the State Department, part of the State Department’s refugee apparatus, but is there any communication between HIAS and the White House? It sounds like they blew you off.

MN: Well, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s personal. I don’t think that they just blew HIAS off. There are nine national resettlement agencies, including the Catholic Church and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and World Relief, which is evangelical. I don’t think any of our voices were heard. There’s no particular singling out of HIAS, but it just seems that there’s a complete disregard for our input and expertise, despite the fact that religious communities have been resettling refugees for decades.

JJ: Is this ban going to affect people that either have or are seeking special immigrant visas (SIV) for having worked with American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan?

MN: Yes, it already has. Two SIV Iraqis were detained at [John F. Kennedy Airport]. They were actually the subject of the lawsuit that was filed on Friday night in New York. They were finally released because Congressman [Jerrold] Nadler, Congresswoman [Nydia] Velazquez and a team of lawyers showed up and demanded their release. But these are people who got their visas because their commanding officers recommended them because they helped our troops. … I mean, the ones that arrived just at that moment were allowed in, but Iraqi SIVs will not be allowed in. Afghan SIVs is another question, because Afghanistan is not on the list of seven countries. But right now we’re not seeing any of those SIVs entering. … The bottom line is: If you’re from Iraq and you have an SIV, you’re not coming, even though the reason you got that visa is because you fought with us.

JJ: The people who are showing up at airports and protesting, and the lawyers who are showing up in many cases just to stand around in the hopes that somebody approaches them out of the terminal, do you think they’re doing anything? Should they continue?

MN: I think all of that is critical. I’ll start from the micro. So, I know somebody who just happened to be around with the lawyers when Hameed [Khalid Darweesh] was released, one of the Iraqi SIV cases at JFK. And so she walked out, left the airport with him to get him a ride to where he was going, and he was just overwhelmed by the level of support. So just to show that one person, who did, mind you, get that visa because of his service to the United States, that there was that kind of support for him, made that night, to me, worth it. But on a broader scale, we have to resist this. This is a national crisis. This could be a constitutional crisis. We have to show that this is not OK, and the only tools we have right now are protesting, calling our members of Congress, showing up at events where our congresspeople are speaking to make sure that they stop this, and having our lawyers ready and pushing to represent people and to litigate these legal issues.

Will it change President Trump’s mind? That’s a question I can’t answer. But it’s an expression of our values as a country, and for that reason, we can’t stop doing this.

JJ: There are many Jews who are permanent residents, but not citizens, from Iran. So do you recommend those people don’t travel outside the United States for the time being?

MN: Look, I can’t give legal advice without knowing the facts of every case. But if I were in that situation, I would talk to a lawyer before I got on a plane. And, if I had immediate travel plans, I would delay them.