Thirty-one years ago, Robert Aronson was a young immigration lawyer who joined the board of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now, after three decades of cycling on and off the board, Aronson has become the president of the board of HIAS at a pivotal time in the agency’s 138-year history.
“I still get jazzed by what it does and what it can do,” said Aronson. “There are days when I get exhausted and I wonder how the staff does it. But at the same time, there’s an element of exhilaration. We’re fighting the good fight at this time.”
HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. HIAS started relocating Jews and helping refugees since 1881 and has continued – despite the fact that the agency handles significantly fewer Jewish refugee cases than other religions.
Over the last two years, HIAS Senior Vice President Melanie Nezer said that the organization has seen the impact of the attempt to restrict access to asylum seekers. Nezer said that the president sets the annual number of refugee admissions every year; prior to President Trump, that number had been set at 110,000. This year it is set at 30,000, which is the lowest number since 1980.
“The actual number is probably going to be closer to 22,000, which is the first time we’re not the largest refugee resettlement country,” Nezer said on a visit to the Twin Cities earlier in the summer. “Canada resettles more and they have a fraction of our population.
That doesn’t mean HIAS is without work. Nezer said that they are ramping up asylum work and attempts to reunify families on the southern border.
“We’ve sent a few lawyers to the border to work in organizations that are already there; we call them our HIAS border fellows,” she said. “There’s a huge need for asylum seekers to get legal support.”
HIAS is working globally, with offices in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
“There are significant humanitarian crises in the world, and we have one on the border here,” he said. “I’m proud of our presence in San Diego and El Paso. And we got funded by the [United Nations] to open an office in Mexico. There are reports of people who are stuck in Mexico that are incredibly vulnerable.”
Aronson said that HIAS’s mission is very embedded in the Jewish story.
“The story of migration, reinvention, relocation,” said Aronson. “I’m not that religious, but it’s the tie-in of refugee protection and Jewish history and our own ancestral stories I find so empowering. I want to validate these things. It’s a great board, a dedicated staff, and I love its mission. I think it’s very effective. It’s a pretty rich experience.”
After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh last October, HIAS became a larger part of the American consciousness.
“I think we were all really stunned,” Nezer said. “I remember when I got the news that we were named by this person as some kind of motivation…
But when you think about what white nationalism is about: the xenophobia, the antisemitism, anti-Muslim, we are at the intersection of all of those things. We have been very vocal about our values and our beliefs. And at some risk, we have stayed very true to our values and what we believe in, and that has made us somewhat of a target.
Said Aronson: “I want us to be recognized as a forceful, impactful agency dedicated to refugee protection. We’re damned good at what we do.”