HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee agency. Though the organization was formally established as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1902, that founding moment represented a continuation of several predecessor organizations that had worked through the 1880s and 1890s to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. While those arriving in the United States at that time were refugees, the world did not yet have a legal concept for people who needed safe refuge outside their homelands.
Originally set up by Jews to help fellow Jews for reasons of religious imperative and communal solidarity, HIAS in the 2020s is a multi-continent, multi-pronged humanitarian aid and advocacy organization with thousands of employees dedicated to helping forcibly displaced persons around the world in keeping with the organization’s Jewish ethical roots.
By the time Ellis Island became the official immigration inspection and processing station in New York City in 1892, HIAS predecessor organizations including the Hebrew Sheltering House Association (organized by Eastern European Jews in 1889 under the Hebrew name Hachnosas Orchim) and its Woman’s Auxiliary had already begun providing meals, transportation, and jobs to members of the fast-growing Russian Jewish population.
In 1902, community members gathered in a shop on the Lower East Side and started a group that would come to be known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. They established a shelter with dormitory space, a soup kitchen and clothing for any needy Jew. Organizers set up a bureau on Ellis Island in 1904 to assist new arrivals, providing translation services, guiding immigrants through medical screenings, arguing before the Boards of Special Inquiry to prevent deportations, and obtaining bonds to guarantee employable status. The organization also found relatives for immigrants who were detained because they had neither money nor friends to claim them. The group became famous worldwide – and in many languages – as HIAS, the abbreviation that was its first telegraphic address.
The outbreak of World War I brought the largest influx of Jews from Eastern Europe yet: more than 138,000 arrived in the United States in 1914 alone. Shortly after the war, though, nativist politicians enacted restrictions limiting the number of immigrants to no more than 2 percent of the total of each nationality residing in the U.S. in 1890, severely limiting the entry of Jews from Eastern Europe. Because of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the subsequent National Origins Act of 1924, few refugees were resettled to the United States from that time through World War II, but HIAS was able to work through its European arm, known as HICEM, to help 250,000 men, women, and children to escape Nazi persecution, and provided refugee services to those who were saved.
After the war, HIAS was instrumental in evacuating the Displaced Persons camps in Europe and aiding in the resettlement of some 150,000 people to 330 communities in the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia, and South America, and, eventually, to Israel following its founding in 1948.
After World War II, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention became the basis for international refugee law, providing the foundation for HIAS’ future work to assist refugees no matter where they were.
On August 24, 1954, seeking to avoid duplication within the Jewish community’s efforts for displaced persons, HIAS, the United Service for New Americans (USNA), and the overseas migration service of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) merged to form the “United HIAS Service,” the name under which the agency would operate until it reverted back to “HIAS” in 1975.
In 1965, thanks to the strong advocacy of HIAS and others, U.S. lawmakers replaced the National Origins Act with new legislation, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ending decades of discriminatory nationality quotas.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, HIAS assisted Jews fleeing such countries as Hungary, Egypt, Cuba, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, the State Department requested HIAS’ assistance with the resettlement of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees in the U.S. In 1977, HIAS helped evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several dramatic airlifts to Israel. Two years later, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran precipitated a slow but steady emigration of Jews escaping an increasingly oppressive theocracy, and HIAS facilitated the resettlement of thousands of Persian Jews with close family in the U.S.
While the Refugee Convention dated back to 1951, the United States only became a signatory in 1968. Indeed, it was only after President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980 that the right to asylum became codified in U.S. law. The act also established a process of resettling refugees to the U.S. where the government worked in partnership with private resettlement agencies, including HIAS.
The Jews of the former Soviet Union found their way to freedom with the help of HIAS in two modern waves, with over 400,000 migrating with HIAS assistance through Vienna and Rome to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. The first wave peaked in 1979, coming to an abrupt halt a year later when the USSR once again closed its doors. The second wave, which began in the late ’80s, continued until emigration restrictions were finally lifted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Continuing from its work in the 1990s, HIAS expanded its resettlement work to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees from the former Yugoslavia, East Africa, southeast Asia and the Middle East. HIAS also began working in countries refugees were fleeing to, helping identify those in immediate danger and bringing them to safety. In 2002, HIAS established operations in Kenya to provide protection to refugees from numerous African countries plagued by conflict, helping to resettle the most vulnerable and providing mental health and social services. The HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya was the first HIAS program in decades to focus exclusively on assisting non-Jewish refugees.
The following year, HIAS entered into its first partnership in decades with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to assist asylum seekers from Ukraine. Over the next two decades, partnering with the UN Refugee Agency to help refugees regardless of religion or ethnicity became the HIAS’ way of working; assisting refugees not because they are Jewish, but because HIAS is Jewish.
In 2003, HIAS expanded into the Latin American and Caribbean region with the opening of its office in Ecuador, which was part of the response to the refugee crisis caused by the conflict in Colombia. Since then, HIAS’ presence in the region has grown to include 11 country offices — reaching from Mexico and Central America to South America and the Caribbean. Today, HIAS is one of the leading agencies working to protect displaced people across the Latin American and Caribbean region.
With the Fall of Kabul in August of 2021 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, HIAS rose to two enormous challenges, mobilizing its national and international networks to resettle Afghans and provide humanitarian aid to refugees from Ukraine in several neighboring countries as well as internally displaced persons inside Ukraine. HIAS also launched a new initiative, Welcome Circles, working with local communities across the U.S. and Europe to resettle Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, to complement the HIAS network, consisting of Jewish family service and other local partners.
In 2023, the global number of displaced persons topped 110 million for the first time and continues to grow. In recent years, nativist politicians around the world, along with social, economic, and climatic crises, have increased the pressure on all refugees, asylum seekers and people who have been displaced in any way.
HIAS, too, became the target of anti-immigrant sentiment when, in 2018, the gunman who murdered 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue attacked HIAS’ support for refugees in online posts just before the shootings. In the wake of that horrific act of violence, HIAS built on the public’s newfound awareness and expanded the reach and scope of the organization’s work in the U.S. and across the globe.
During this challenging time, HIAS also mounted a legal challenge to President Trump’s refugee ban, and worked to counter the Trump administration’s deep cuts to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Today, HIAS has more than 1,800 staff members providing services to refugees and other displaced people in more than 20 countries. In the U.S., our refugee resettlement network has grown to include 23 metropolitan areas across the country. HIAS has also received tremendous support from the American Jewish community and from thousands of Jewish clergy members, with more than 475 synagogues in our network.
Working with hundreds of government, corporate, and other partners, HIAS now helps more than a million people each year around the world.