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Some Jewish groups protest Biden’s executive order on immigration, but others are staying silent

‘We do not need to look too far back into our history to see what has happened when this country has turned its back on people,’ said a HIAS official

When President Joe Biden announced a new executive order this week effectively closing the U.S.-Mexico border to asylum seekers, the timing of the act sounded the alarm for Jewish immigration advocates.

The order comes following a months-long surge of border crossings from Mexico, and as Biden faces low poll numbers on the issue. But some Jewish activists noted that it also came 85 years to the week after the United States denied entry to the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. And Biden signed it almost exactly 100 years after the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act all but shut the country’s doors to immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, keeping out many Jews and others.

“We don’t have to look too far back in our own family histories to know what it is like to come to this country seeking safety,” Naomi Steinberg, the vice president of U.S. policy and advocacy at HIAS, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We do not need to look too far back into our history to see what has happened when this country has turned its back on people, on Jewish people attempting to flee from persecution and danger.”

The executive order, which took effect Wednesday, would close the border when the weekly average of illegal crossings surpasses 2,500, which happens regularly, and remain closed until the average drops to 1,500 and stays at that level for two weeks. “I’ve come here today to do what the Republicans in Congress refused to do,” Biden said regarding the order.

HIAS was one of a number of largely liberal groups to criticize the executive order, marking a partial return of Jewish organizational focus to an issue that energized groups in the Jewish left and center throughout the Trump administration. Now, in an election year when many voters want to see a decrease in immigration, the issue has not been top of mind for many American Jewish groups — who may be more hesitant to criticize Biden and whose attention has been focused on the Israel-Hamas war and rising antisemitism.

Jewish groups including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights condemned Biden’s executive order, citing Jewish values.

“As Jews, we are commanded by our texts and tradition to remember our own time as strangers in a strange land, and to welcome those seeking refuge,” NCJW’s statement said. “America should be a place where everyone is welcome. We are deeply disappointed with today’s executive order as it undermines this obligation and jeopardizes the lives of women, children and families suffering at our border.”

During the presidency of Donald Trump and beyond, those groups were joined with other Jewish organizations, including the organizations representing America’s major Jewish religious streams, that spoke out about his immigration crackdowns by citing Jewish values. A 2018 poll by the American Jewish Committee found that 46% of American Jews wanted immigration to increase, while another 34% wanted it to stay level.

As recently as last year, the Anti-Defamation League responded to a previous Biden administration clampdown with an appeal to Jewish immigrant heritage.

“We are rooted in a community that has experienced the plight of living as refugees throughout its history,” the ADL wrote in a March 2023 letter to Department of Homeland Security officials. “The asylum ban attempts to cut off access to asylum for many refugees at the southern border, discriminates against Black, Brown, and Indigenous asylum seekers, and seeks to circumvent U.S. law and treaty obligations to refugees.”

But many of those groups, which routinely weigh in on U.S. domestic policy, including on immigration legislation, have declined to enter the fray this week. The ADL declined to comment, as did the Orthodox Union, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America. The AJC did not respond to a JTA inquiry.

Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, said “I hope not” when asked whether Jewish groups were becoming less animated by immigration, though he believes they are less inclined to criticize Biden, who has not made criticizing immigration a centerpiece of his message.

“One thing that has definitely changed with Biden, for the better, is he doesn’t vilify immigrants and asylum seekers, he doesn’t demonize them,” Hetfield said. “So his actions are looked at with less suspicion, because he doesn’t spew the vitriol against immigrants and asylum seekers that President Trump’s spewed, and I think that makes a difference.”

In addition, since Oct. 7, those and other Jewish groups have been focused on responding to Hamas’ attack on Israel, the ensuing and ongoing war in Gaza, and a rise in antisemitism at home. Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which condemned the executive order, said Jewish organizations have been “all-hands-on-deck in responding to the crisis in Israel and the ripple effects here at home.”

She added, “There’s so much on everyone’s plate right now. In some cases it’s probably a bandwidth issue.” But she said that the war and antisemitism may have led some groups to deprioritize advocacy on behalf of other groups.

“There are definitely some more extreme voices who are saying that in this moment we need to put up walls and give up on building bridges between communities, and give up on the social justice work we know is inherent to our values and to our own safety,” Spitalnick said. But citing an overlap between anti-immigrant rhetoric and antisemitism, she added, “This is a moment when we need to lean into that work. We know the ways in which attacks against any community are inextricably linked with Jewish safety.”

Steinberg said HIAS organized a group of activists, including several rabbis, who traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby against the executive order. The agency will also be encouraging its constituents to contact Congress and the White House to voice opposition to the decision. And Hetfield said HIAS plans to support lawsuits that other advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are bringing against the order.

“​​This is all about political maneuvering right now, and it is about trying to position the administration, trying to essentially outflank candidate Trump about who can quote-unquote be toughest on the border,” Steinberg said. “What we are seeing is the stoking of fear, and the abdication of our legal and moral responsibilities to allow people due process and access to the asylum system.”

Jewish groups weren’t the only ones noting the historical timing of the order. The Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group formed in 2011 that includes 60 organizations spanning from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, also noted the anniversary of the M.S. St. Louis affair in its statement denouncing the order.

“Ironically, President Biden announced this new ban on asylum on the 85th anniversary of the United States denying entry to the M.S. St. Louis,” the SBCC said in its statement. “It is a shameful day. Rather than recentering the conversation on migration and asylum around dignity, the Biden Administration is choosing to perpetuate the same human rights violations of the last century.”

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