In 2000, Joseph Hoeffel, then a congressman from Pennsylvania, entered into the congressional record his commendation of HIAS, congratulating the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on its 118th anniversary and paying tribute to its work helping “Jews and people of other backgrounds who are fleeing from persecution.” What Hoeffel didn’t note is that for most of those 118 years, government officials held a darker view of the organization—a view that better matches Tree of Life suspect Robert Bowers’ than Hoeffel’s.
Before allegedly gunning down 11 Jews in their house of worship last week, Bowers wrote on social media that, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” Government officials over the years didn’t unleash that specific lie; they did, however, argue that HIAS was harming America by encouraging masses of “unfit” people to come here. For much of its history, HIAS has been tracked, scrutinized, singled out, and threatened by authorities in the State Department, the Labor Department, the Department of Commerce, and Congress. Like Bowers’ rant, federal officials’ suspicions have been premised on HIAS’s championing of immigrants and refugees and motivated by nativist anti-Semitism.
Reflecting Americans’ aversion to the arrival of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, efforts to impede HIAS’s activities began almost immediately after the establishment of the organization in the late 19th century. Back then, the organization collected and distributed information on newly arrived Jewish immigrants for worried family members, helped newcomers find work, provided temporary housing, and offered legal assistance to would-be immigrants who faced unexpected legal entanglements when they tried to enter the country.
In 1909, when the modern iteration of the organization came into existence, HIAS’s de facto lead counsel Max Kohler tried to assist a group of Jews marked for exclusion—the designation given to those who would be sent back to where they came from—because they were supposedly “likely to become public charges.” In response to Kohler’s attempt, William Williams, the commissioner of immigration on Ellis Island and avowed immigration restrictionist, wrote a letter to Secretary of Commerce and Labor Charles Nagel about the case, complaining, “You may have noticed that within the last few days the number of [immigration] appeals has increased materially. While dictating this letter I learn[ed] that the Hebrew charities have filed twenty additional ones.” Commenting on the fact that HIAS had provided financial aid to these Jews, thereby enabling them to enter the country, Williams remarked, “As time goes on I shall less and less allow aliens to secure funds” from HIAS or other immigrant aid organizations. HIAS’s efforts to secure admission for people who had been marked for exclusion by loaning them money frustrated government officials so much that they tried to outlaw the practice.
Williams frequently discussed the supposedly “inferior” quality of late 19th-century immigrants, referring to them as “diseased” and claiming they hurt the economy. Open anti-Semites felt he championed their cause: “I am greatly grateful to hear that you have taken steps to check the tide of ignorant, stupid and undesirable immigrants,” one fan wrote to Williams. “The present immigrants are mostly Slavs, Italians, and Jews. … [They] constitute a menace to labor, civilization, and humanity, and they should be excluded,” he reminded the commissioner. Although Williams was careful to not publicly identify Jews as his target, he clearly viewed Jewish immigrants specifically as undesirables and openly worked to exclude them through what he called “rigid enforcement” of the country’s immigration laws and the creation of related policies.
World War I prompted HIAS to direct its efforts overseas, transforming it into an international refugee agency. Wartime immigration restrictions, left in place after the conflict, prevented Jewish refugees from coming to America. Accordingly, in 1920, HIAS opened overseas offices, especially in Poland, and began assisting refugees near America’s new “borders” (its consulates). There were no asylum policies in place, and no recognized definition of “refugee,” which made the organization’s work legally complicated. As HIAS continued to advocate for lifting U.S. immigration restrictions, State and Labor department officials closely monitored its activities, hoping to catch any illegal behavior. Such oversight made HIAS extremely cautious. Fearful of being shut down, it refrained from aiding anyone that may not have fully complied with the legal requirements of immigration.
Internal State Department memos from this time reveal the government’s continued suspicion of the organization and a pernicious view that HIAS was actually in it for the money. In a May 27, 1921, memo written by the Bureau of Immigration, one official warned that HIAS and other Jewish immigrant aid societies were “attracted by the pecuniary rewards involved in the business,” and accused them of “making very considerable sums of money by facilitating” Jewish immigration. There were no pecuniary rewards in this business, of course—HIAS, a nonprofit association, was in fact going deeply into debt—but this claim fit in well with the anti-Semitic trope about Jewish profiteering. This same memo then recommended that immigration officials reserve especially harsh treatment for European Jewish visa applicants, encouraging federal inspectors to secretly “subject [Jews] to additional searching examination as to the circumstances and how [they] happened to be coming to America.”
Federal officials continued to undermine HIAS privately, reinterpreting the country’s immigration policies so that HIAS’s activities, such as representing immigrants at hearings, were no longer permitted. As in the past, Jewish refugees were labeled “inferior,” “ready to breed,” and “unsanitary,” and HIAS was accused of fraud for financially assisting them. In response, HIAS beefed up its legal presence in Washington. Soon, anti-HIAS rhetoric reached the halls of Congress as politicians moved to pass quota acts in 1921 and 1924, drastically reducing the numbers of Eastern European Jews who could enter the United States legally.
Of necessity, in 1927, branches of HIAS outside the U.S. merged with European Jewish organizations in order to fund refugee settlement efforts elsewhere. When the Jewish refugee crisis took on new urgency under the threat of Nazism a few years later, American officials did little to nothing to save European Jewry or help HIAS’s strenuous efforts. Still, in cooperation with other Jewish humanitarian organizations, HIAS played a crucial role helping approximately 90,000 European Jews escape during the war to homes largely outside of America.
The postwar era marked a turning point in the relationship between the government and HIAS, as public opinion in general became more receptive to immigrants and to Jews. Federal officials actually turned to private relief organizations, HIAS among them, to gather information about and aid refugees, and in 1965, Congress abolished the quota system and loosened immigration restrictions. After the Vietnam War, the State Department asked for HIAS’s assistance with the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees. In 1976, the Justice Department Board of Immigration Appeals granted HIAS authorization to represent individuals who came before it, a major turn-around from previous efforts to block HIAS representatives from representing excluded, would-be immigrants. Since then, HIAS has continually represented immigrants, including Soviet Jewish refugees. When HIAS lawyers showed up in U.S. airports during the recent Muslim ban crisis, they were drawing on more than 100 years’ experience in lawyering on behalf of immigrants. And now, true to tradition, they have been providing support to asylum-seekers who are part of the so-called migrant caravan.
Throughout its history as America’s oldest continual refugee assistance organization, HIAS has advocated for individuals in desperate circumstances who had no other champions. For a period, the organization was broadly valued for that work. But it’s not surprising that a man violently fixated on the supposed “caravan” and filled with anti-Semitic hate was focused on HIAS, and that he interpreted HIAS’s work as an affront to America and, implicitly, to its whiteness. For more than a century, HIAS’s detractors, many anti-Semites lodged in the U.S. government among them, did the same.