HIAS CEO Hetfield Calls for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Before House Judiciary Committee

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Statement of HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield on testimony before the Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security and Enforcement:

As a Jewish agency founded over 120 years ago to help refugees fleeing anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and persecution, HIAS understands both the importance of border integrity as well as the need to protect the asylum system, so that never again are people trapped inside their country of persecution.

Today, however, both the asylum and immigration systems in this country are in such need of investment, updating and repair, that everyone in this room can agree that the system is, indeed, broken and that the status quo is unacceptable.

Congress has not even addressed legal immigration pathways in over three decades, with the false mantra that we need to fix the border first, and then we can fix legal immigration pathways.

This, however, has been the strategy for the last 30 years. It ignores the laws of supply and demand. We cannot fix the border without ensuring that there are legal pathways to the United States for those who are fleeing persecution, who are willing to take jobs that employers are not able to fill with U.S. citizens, or who want to reunite with family. Those laws have not been updated in over three decades. The laws on the books are not working.

Likewise, as long as Congressional inaction continues to prolong the decades of limbo endured by far too many  — including recipients of Temporary Protected Status, Dreamers, humanitarian parolees, and those who receive withholding of removal — while failing to create pathways to permanent residence or family reunion, our immigration system will continue to be in a state of disrepair.

Only through comprehensive immigration reform can Congress fulfill the dual imperatives of  safe, orderly, and humane processes that respect the rights of people seeking safety, while also meeting the need for a secure border.

Nor can Congress keep investing in immigration enforcement officers and detention facilities without proportional investments in immigration judges, adjudicators, and asylum officers. One of the reasons for the breakdown of the system is that Congress has invested far more in arresting and apprehending migrants than in deciding their cases. That has created such bottlenecks that the system has collapsed under its own weight.

There will be no easy or cheap solutions to make up for decades of underinvestment, neglect, and polarization around this issue. That’s why I called on the House subcommittee, and on Congress as a whole, to work with the administration to find bipartisan solutions to support the legal protection and enforcement mechanisms necessary to restore equilibrium and integrity to our immigration and asylum systems.

This is more important than ever at a time when there are more displaced persons across the globe than at any time in human history. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, an estimated 20.6 million people are on the move today after fleeing from their homes. In the 11 countries where we work in the region, HIAS has responded by providing legal protection, community mental health and psychosocial services, gender-based violence protection, economic inclusion support, and emergency response services to forcibly displaced people.

My HIAS colleagues in Latin America see with their own eyes every day what the regional displacement crisis looks like, and exactly why people are forced to make the wrenching decision to leave behind everything they know to find safety and peace for their families. And that’s why we understand just what the new U.S. border policies mean in human terms. My colleagues at HIAS Mexico certainly saw first hand the damage that Title 42 caused, the public health pretext for the United States to expel 2.8 million people without access to a basic asylum screening.

There are immediate term measures that I called on Congress and the administration to take as we work toward comprehensive immigration reform:

  • Increase funding to hire more asylum officers and immigration judges to reduce the asylum backlog, which has reached new heights with more than 1.3 million pending asylum applications
  • Improve communications about border policy changes to reduce misinformation from human smugglers and spread by word-of-mouth
  • Expand access to meaningful legal counsel for asylum seekers in CPB custody, in particular those subject to “credible fear” interviews and expedited removal
  • Promote the reforms necessary to ensure that people subject to expedited removal are protected in compliance with U.S. laws, policies and procedures, so they are not returned to countries where they face persecution or torture
  • Limit the use of immigrant detention to those who pose a serious public safety or national security threat
  • Implement communication and coordination systems among border cities and communities in other parts of the country to facilitate the humane transfer of asylum seekers to their destinations of choice

I restated HIAS’ support for administration plans to increase investment in case management for asylum seekers, and to significantly increase resettlement from Latin American and Caribbean nations — though we urged Congress today to make sure that any surge of resources to support Regional Processing Centers (RPCs) around Latin America will not come at the cost of resettlement from other parts of the world.

Finally, today I reiterated our opposition to recent legislative proposals that would essentially obliterate the nation’s asylum system. Among other measures, these bills would allow CBP to conduct mass expulsions to Mexico for two years, and require DHS to detain those who have entered the U.S. between official points of entry or who arrived at POEs without prior approval —  including children. Since we are still haunted by images of young children behind bars in immigration detention, we find it reprehensible to even suggest that we would return to a place where we are detaining babies and young children.

As a refugee organization founded on the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger — and having witnessed a time when millions of Jews had no right to flee and no places that would accept them — HIAS remains deeply committed to the fundamental human right to seek asylum, which is why we have staunchly opposed recent efforts to severely curtail access to this protection. As the asylum space in this country continues to shrink, we once again call on the administration and Congress to live up to the words of President Biden’s inaugural address, to lead “not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” by working together to advance true immigration reform.

Download Mark Hetfield’s full testimony here.

About HIAS

HIAS, the Jewish humanitarian organization that provides critical services to refugees, asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced people, works in 23 countries around the world, including 11 in Latin America and the Caribbean — with more than 70 field offices in the region. HIAS first opened offices across Latin America in the 1930s to facilitate the immigration of Jewish refugees from Nazism in Europe, and maintained a presence in the region until the mid-1990s. In 2000, HIAS reopened its regional office in Buenos Aires to assist Jews fleeing the Argentine economic crisis with relocation to countries in the Americas, Europe and Australia. In 2003, HIAS reopened operations in Ecuador to serve refugees fleeing the conflict in Colombia. Since then, HIAS’ presence in the region has expanded — reaching from Mexico and Central America to South America and the Caribbean.



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