Judith Bernstein-Baker has directed HIAS Pennsylvania for the last 15 years; and for all that time, she has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform. Yet until just a few months ago, the political winds pushed back against those efforts.
But last week, both President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators introduced separate plans for reform. The framework for both proposals is a call for increased border security and the establishment of mechanisms for most of the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to pay fines and back taxes and get on the path to citizenship.
Bernstein has long pushed for the Jewish community to get more involved on the issue and in 2011, HIAS co-founded the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Coalition on Immigration. The members of the coalition are set to meet on Feb. 7 and discuss how to move forward now that immigration reform is on the front burner.
Last week, Bernstein-Baker sat down to discuss recent developments and her 131-year-old organization’s work — it was long known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — assisting immigrants and refugees to resettle in the United States. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
What is your reaction to the reform proposals?
We are pleased, but I am not jumping up and down yet. We are heartened by the fact that it is on the front-burner. We seem to have shifted the discussion from demonizing and stigmatizing immigrants to recognizing their economic, political, cultural and other contributions. That is very important change.
It’s not enough, in my opinion, to say we are going to fix the system and help people move out of the shadows. We also have to move forward with integration and naturalization and encouraging success among diverse populations.
What about the idea that any new reforms would be contingent on improved border security?
We would like to see a policy that doesn’t have insurmountable obstacles for individuals who have been here a long time to resolve their immigration status and be placed on a path to citizenship. Enforcement is going to be the most difficult, contentious issue. The number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States has dropped 80 percent and this president has deported more people than any other president. So to say that we don’t have enforcement is not based in reality.
Does HIAS serve undocumented immigrants?
We offer legal services to immigrants — people seeking citizenship. There are people who are applying for their family members abroad and there are also people who are trying to stabilize their immigration status. We do have contact with members of the population that do not have immigration status. Of course, we are not able to help them, unless they fall into a certain category. I guess you could say we work with a lot of people in the gray area.
HIAS is also known for its work on behalf of refugees. What is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee?
An immigrant is somebody here who comes to reside permanently — they are also known as lawful permanent residents. They have to either be sponsored by a family member — that’s the most usual way they get here — or by an employer, which is quite unusual, if you are coming from abroad.
Refugees are individuals who are fleeing persecution and they may have no family ties here. And they are usually outside their country of origin and living in camps. Asylum is when someone is already in the United States and can’t go back to their home country. We only accept refugees from certain countries. It is a pretty complicated procedure and it is done in conjunction with the State Department and the United Nations. [Refugees and those granted asylum] are able to remain here permanently. They are placed on a path to citizenship.
Does HIAS still serve Jewish clients?
Oh yeah, of course. I did want to make clear that we still work with the Jewish community. We are still getting Jewish refugees coming in. Very small numbers but they are coming. Ukraine is the biggest feeder. There are Jews from Iran — we don’t have too many, most go to the West Coast or Queens. There are certainly people applying for citizenship and there are people who want to bring their relatives over as immigrants, which is a different process. All three involve the Jewish community.