Naomi Steinberg serves as vice president for policy and advocacy for HIAS. Previously, Steinberg was the director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition dedicated to refugee protection, welcome, and excellence in the U.S. refugee resettlement program. She holds an M.A. in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell University and a B.A. in political science from Macalester College.
For HIAS’ 140 years, we have worked to achieve protection for refugees, doing so from a place of grounding in Jewish values, history, text, and experience. Today we provide vital services to refugees and asylum seekers in 16 countries, including the United States. For example, through our network of local Jewish resettlement partner agencies, we welcome resettled refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and help them to rebuild their lives in communities across the country. We also advocate. With the Jewish community beside us, we work with grassroots advocates, opinion leaders, legislators, and policymakers to protect and advance policies that promote fair and humane asylum laws, refugee resettlement, and integration.
Over the last four years, the American Jewish community rallied in support of U.S. refugee protection. We advocated in the halls of Congress to safeguard the U.S. asylum system. We marched in the streets to protest the decimation of the USRAP and the discriminatory policies that kept families out of the United States simply because of where they were from and what faith they practiced. We decried the abject cruelty that resulted in children being ripped from their parents’ arms at our southern border.
Over the last four years, the American Jewish community rallied in support of U.S. refugee protection.
From the first week of the Trump administration, it was painfully clear that our collective advocacy and action would need to take on an urgency the likes of which many of us had never seen before. The stakes were raised to dizzying heights, and we joined together with secular and non-secular partners to fight to keep the USRAP and U.S. asylum system alive long enough that one day, we could turn our sights to rebuilding them.
That day has arrived with the promise of an administration that is committed to resurrecting the USRAP and overturning the most egregious policy changes that essentially eliminated the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. One could be forgiven for assuming that since President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have long histories of supporting refugees and made pro-refugee pledges during the campaign, that refugee advocacy no longer needs to be prioritized.
As tempting as that sounds, that cannot be our path forward. We know that the Biden-Harris administration will be inundated by a myriad of challenges, including wrangling a pandemic and revitalizing our floundering economy. The onus is therefore on everyone who cares about the fate of refugees and asylum seekers, including those of us in faith communities, to raise a consistent and unified voice to ensure that when the new administration takes office, refugee protection priorities will be among those at the top of their list.
We will urge the Biden-Harris administration to increase the refugee admissions target so that it does not fall below the historical average of 95,000 people a year. We must also keep the pressure on the administration to support an increase in funding to rebuild the domestic resettlement infrastructure, as well as its overseas apparatus, both of which have been greatly weakened.
We will urge the Biden-Harris administration to increase the refugee admissions target so that it does not fall below the historical average of 95,000 people a year.
We will continue to amplify the need to stop implementing asylum practices that were designed to make it nearly impossible for anyone to successfully find safety in the United States. This means that the administration must prioritize ending the Migrant Protection Protocols (Remain in Mexico) policy and ensure that a humane solution is found for every person who was forced to languish in dangerous conditions in Mexico for their asylum cases to be heard in the United States. We must also keep the pressure on to make sure that the administration follows through on its promise to rescind the Muslim, refugee, immigration and asylum bans that not only tore families apart and gutted U.S. refugee protection, but were also a collective black eye on the U.S. reputation around the world. We will count on President Biden to reverse all of the executive orders and regulations that ranged from expelling asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border during the COVID-19 pandemic to radically changing core principles of international and U.S. asylum law.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The Trump administration issued approximately 400 new immigration policies and regulations. They were able to do this because of their deep obsession and commitment to extremist immigration policies, even though recent polling indicates that the majority of Americans support increased immigration levels. The Biden-Harris administration will need to show a similar level of focus in order to make a dent in restoring humanity and sanity to our immigration and refugee protection systems. We recognize that many of the draconian changes the Trump administration made are now so firmly ensconced in complicated regulatory processes that it will realistically take years to unwind the damage that they wrought. That is why there is no time to waste and why our advocacy work is as important as ever. The road before us is long, but this is the beginning of a new era, one that will be defined by restoring compassion to our immigration systems.
The road before us is long, but this is the beginning of a new era, one that will be defined by restoring compassion to our immigration systems.
The Torah reminds us 36 times of the importance of welcoming the stranger. This has never just been a biblical mandate that has no bearing on how HIAS shows up for refugees. It is foundational to our mission, and we fervently believe that it—as well as its many iterations from other faith traditions—is directly tied to how the United States will fare as we move forward. Will we as a country move past the recent toxic politicization of refugees to rebuild bipartisan support for programs that have saved lives and helped to shape who we are as a country?
We are at an inflection point as we prepare to turn the page on the last four years. We have the opportunity to recommit to what we want this country to be. For HIAS and our partners, that starts with using the power of our voices to remind elected officials that our country has been strengthened in countless ways when we have welcomed the stranger, and we stand at the ready to continue this proud American and Jewish tradition.