December 2007

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Welcoming the Stranger: HIAS and Council Marina Merlin helps new Burmese mother and daughter. © Jeannette Flamm Brockman.
Networking Central

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia
Welcoming Strangers for more than 125 Years.

-- Sarah Peterson

Last month, half way around the world, monks, and crowds of protestors marched in the streets of Yangon fighting for peace, freedom, and democracy in Burma/Myanmar. At the same time, HIAS and Council, a local nonprofit agency specializing in immigration and refugee services, was resettling Burmese refugees in the Philadelphia area. These refugee families fled Myanmar 10 to 20 years ago when the military junta fighting with ethnic oppositional groups began attacking villages, instituting forced labor, and displacing local villagers. Since then, they have been living in impoverished refugee camps in Thailand; now HIAS and Council  welcome them to the United States. The families live down the street from the JCCs Stieffel Center -- a community center created to assist Jewish immigrants from previous generations.

Although the great wave of Soviet Jewish migration is coming to an end, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia (HIAS and Council) remain vibrant. Founded more than 125 years ago to provide services to Jewish immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution and seeking opportunity by migrating to America, HIAS and Council continue to resettle, reunite and represent Jewish and all immigrants and refugees. Our name represents the merger in the late 1940s between Philadelphia HIAS and a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. It is our mission to seek the fair treatment and full integration into American Society of migrants from all backgrounds. Over the years, we estimate that we have helped over 300,000 individuals to emigrate and integrate into our communities. Today, we represent immigrants and refugees from over 100 different nationalities, including Jews from Iran and the former Soviet Union, and newcomers from Latin America, Indochina, and Africa.

Our staff of six attorneys, three specially accredited immigration specials, program and volunteer manager speak 12 languages (Russian, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Hindi, Italian, Laotian, Khmer, Thai, Moldovan, Hungarian and Hebrew) and have over 75 years of collective experience in working with the foreign-born. Located in the Jewish Community Services Building at 2100 Arch Street, HIAS and Council provide the following programs:

  • Representation and legal counseling before immigration agencies and courts;
  • Refugee resettlement and other social services to assist newly arriving immigrants, refugees and those recently granted asylum;
  • Citizenship assistance;
  • Advocacy and education related to immigrant issues and rights.

Immigration at a Crossroads

Welcoming the strangers is an especially important value today as it has been in any other part of Jewish and American history. HIAS and Council have joined with national HIAS and interfaith leaders to work for comprehensive immigration reform which includes respect for border security, elimination of backlogs in immigration processing that keep families separated, sufficient legal avenues for immigrants who are needed for the economy and a legalization program with screening for undocumented immigrants. Because Congress did not enact rational comprehensive immigration reform, local and state communities are taking the matter into their own hands by introducing punitive legislation. In Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for example, a local ordinance was passed that sought to punish landlords and employers for doing business with undocumented immigrants. Fortunately, federal courts ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional.

The debate about illegal and legal immigrants is spreading intolerance to our communities. Although all immigrants are affected, the Anti-Defamation League points out in its recent report, Extremists Declare 'Open Season' on Immigrants: Hispanics Target of Incitement and Violence, Hispanics have been particularly targeted. The report explores the manipulation of the issue by white supremacy groups.

Photo: Jeannette Flamm Brockman.

Examples of this intolerance include the sign at Geno’s Steaks demanding that customers order in English and efforts on the part of the Pennsylvania legislature to pass an ordinance making English the "official language of the state." These efforts send a disturbing message to all individuals perceived to be foreign-born including those who may be citizens such as Puerto Ricans -- you are not welcome in the state of Pennsylvania.

One of the ways in which HIAS and Council work to welcome the stranger and combat intolerance is through our community education and advocacy. HIAS and Council teach immigrant communities about resources available to them, trains social service providers, such as domestic violence and child welfare agencies, to help connect vulnerable immigrants to specialized legal services, and offers continuing education legal courses on immigration law. Last year the Judith Bernstein-Baker, the Executive Director, served on various panels on immigration issues, including one at the Temple University Beasley School of Law Symposium, and others at WHYY- TV and the Free Library of Philadelphia. She also published an article on citizenship, Our bilingual Spanish-English staff has spoken numerous times on Spanish language radio and television. HIAS and Council work with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, interfaith groups, community-based organizations, and HIAS national to promote comprehensive immigration reform.

The staff of HIAS and Council is available for speaking engagements. Contact information is below.

Direct Service

Our direct immigration services help immigrants and refugees navigate the complicated federal immigration agencies under the Department of Homeland Security on their pathways to citizenship.

  • Refugee Resettlement Program – originally HIAS and Council helped Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution. In the 1980’s, the federal government asked us to help resettle the waves of boat people emigrating from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Jewish refugees flooded our doors to be reunited with family members. Since 2005, HIAS and Council expanded its refugee services to include the reception and placement program which was formerly coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Now we are welcoming Liberian refugees from Ghana, Ethiopian refugees, and now Burmese refugees. These immigrants are building up the Philadelphia urban community by opening up new businesses, strengthening the tax base and stemming population loss.
  • Citizenship Assistance for Vulnerable Adults Program is known in the region for its expertise in specialized naturalization services. HIAS and Council initiated this program to assist elderly and disabled immigrants and refugees become citizens and advocate for those who were in danger of losing life-saving safety net benefits.
  • The Representation and Litigation Program encompasses several initiatives, including our direct immigration legal services to immigrant survivors of domestic violence and unaccompanied immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned, and neglected. We also dedicate a portion of this program to the representation of asylum seekers. This work includes the training of private bar attorneys to take on pro bono asylum matters.
  • Asylee Outreach Project helps to promote self-sufficiency for immigrants granted asylum through referrals to available services, advocacy, and workshops.

HIAS and Council welcome your support!

Here is how you can contribute:

  • Donate furniture, household goods, and clothing for refugee families. (Please call in advance)
  • Personally adopt a refugee family or ask your organization or synagogue to adopt a family. Adopting a family is a wonderful way to expose you and your family to cross-cultural experiences, while serving as a life-line to new refugees. Training is provided.
  • Make a contribution to HIAS and Council.

To help HIAS and Council welcome the stranger, contact Sarah Peterson at 215-832-0920 or via email at speterson@hiaspa.org.

Past Networking Central Groups of the Month

In this section, we highlight a new local group each month in order to encourage networking.

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