Seven days into the new administration, the new president issued an executive order against refugees, immigrants and Muslims. It was ironic that this action took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day.Organizations, clergy and regular citizens like me mobilized with an ad hoc protest rally at the Philadelphia airport. We were told to stay off the sidewalk and to congregate in the traffic lane outside the international arrivals hall. Frankly, I was not concerned for my safety until I saw the line-up of police.
On the following Wednesday morning, February 1, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) convened an emergency coalition meeting at the Jewish Federation building. Members of the local Jewish community talked about a coordinated response to the executive order. Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS-PA, presented a nutshell summary of the the provisions of the executive order, many of which have since been suspended for the time being as a result of a temporary restraining order imposed by a federal District Court judge in Seattle.
Under the executive order, nationals from seven Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — were banned from entering the United States for 90 days. This ban eliminated visas for students, tourists, and immigrants with proper documentation. Its impact on dual nationals (with two passports) has been unclear.
All refugees from any country were banned for 120 days, during which time their visas and security and health clearances would expire. Refugees from Syria were banned indefinitely. This ban was imposed even though the standard vetting process can take up to two years (and up to five years in some recent cases).
The Obama administration had planned to accept 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2016. About 30,000 refugees have arrived in the United States since then. Meanwhile, the new executive order seeks to reduce the cap on the number of refugees to be accepted into the United States this year from 110,000 to 50,000.
Also of concern is an expected executive order enforcing “public charge,” which will remove exemptions to the ruling that people who have ever accepted public assistance — whether food stamps or Medicaid — are ineligible for citizenship. Refugees had been exempted and allowed assistance for eight months.
The legal landscape regarding the immigration ban has been extremely fluid. Nationally, there have been a number of lawsuits filed on behalf of people detained after the travel ban. Refugees, with approval by the United States government, have due process rights, meaning that they qualify for a hearing and legal representation. A lawsuit was filed by HIAS-PA and the ACLU on behalf of a Syrian family turned back from the Philadelphia airport.
In addition, four states have already filed lawsuits regarding the immigration ban, with the state of Pennsylvania preparing to file too. The District Court’s decision in the Washington state case has already been appealed by the administration to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Since the initial executive order — signed before sundown on Friday — there has been some adjustment under a national interest waiver: green-card holders while abroad in the seven banned countries can be exempted on a case-by-case basis. (Former refugees are eligible for a green card after one year of residence.)
HIAS-PA assisted people from over 125 countries last year, including more than 160 refugees. The refugees come from Burma, Bhutan, the Congo, Eritrea and Ukraine, as well as the banned countries in the executive order. The ban would cut off federal funding for refugee resettlement, which comprises 40% of the HIAS-PA budget and nine staffers. Miller-Wilson reported that their board may decide to re-allocate the budget to avoid laying off staff. HIAS-PA also provided a list of suggested actions the public can take to support refugee resettlement in Philadelphia.
At the emergency coalition meeting, we resolved to prepare a statement from the Jewish establishment as well as an inter-faith commitment. Rabbi David Strauss of Main Line Reform spoke animatedly about the grass-roots efforts in the Soviet Jewry movement and against apartheid in South Africa. He pushed for a sustained public protest, such as the Friday vigils held outside the South African Embassy in Washington (where protesters were arrested and released immediately). He touted the Liberty Bell as a powerful symbol for demonstrations.
We voted to form a task force to plan a sustained public protest led by the Jewish Community Relations Council. Carole Wilder, a HIAS-PA board vice president, reported that the “Tuesdays with Toomey” campaign is losing efficacy, as Senator Toomey’s staff has stopped meeting with the public. The congressional phones have been kept busy, so telephone calls have also stopped being efficacious. A more effective tactic is a postcard mail campaign at $0.38 per postcard.
As one clergyman noted at the meeting, we now have a president who thrives on chaos and who now rules by chaos. We need a Jewish communal plan for quick action against any subsequent executive orders.