The Reins of Power: How Immigration Law Has Evolved to Reflect Our Country’s Value System
In this episode of On Record PR, Leslie Richards goes on record with Cathryn Miller-Wilson, Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1993 and has spent her career doing social justice work: representing parents accused of abuse and neglect at Community Legal Services, Inc., representing persons with HIV/AIDS at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and teaching and supervising law students who represented low-income persons in a variety of civil matters at both Drexel University School of Law and Villanova University School of Law.
She is the primary author of Pennsylvania’s Standby Guardianship Act which became law in December, 1998.
Thank you much for joining us and for the opportunity to discuss the vital work that HIAS PA is doing in the somewhat fraught and complicated area of immigration law.
Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
Can we start with you telling us a little bit about HIAS and of HIAS PA background specifically? How did it start?
Sure. This is my favorite story to tell.
HIAS Pennsylvania, HIAS is an acronym that stands for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was founded in 1882. Unknown to us at the time, mainly because in the 1880s there wasn’t social media, in 1881, in a case of great minds think alike, Jews in New York City founded a very similar organization. And the reason that great minds were thinking alike at the time, there were terrible terrorist attacks happening in eastern Russia, specifically against Jews, and even more specifically, young, teenage Jewish girls were at risk because of rape, back then as it is today, was used as a weapon of war.
Many impoverished Russian Jews pooled all their funds, sometimes whole communities, to get a ship’s passage for the young girls to come to the United States to be safe.
But these women didn’t speak English, they had disrupted education, and they didn’t know a soul. And both the New York organization and our organization were formed by Jews to rescue these Jews who were landing on our shores.
And the idea, from both organizations, and again, they weren’t talking to each other; they just happened to think the same thoughts. It was to create what we know as settlement houses.
These were safe houses for young women to come and learn English, get fed and clothed, introduced to the culture and then help them find a job so that they could ultimately move out on their own and start their own lives in the United States. One of the more fun parts of the story, is that the same year that HIAS Pennsylvania was founded was the year that the original Public Charge Rule was introduced into Congress. And we knew about it because one of our founders was a Philadelphia lawyer named Louis Edward Levy.
He was not an immigration attorney because there was no immigration law to deal with. Still, as a reasonable Philadelphia attorney, he kept himself apprised of events in Congress to the extent that they might have impacted his practice.
He learned about the Public Charge Rule and he rallied the Philadelphia Jews and said, “Hey. Make no mistake, this isn’t about keeping poor people out; this is about keeping poor Jews out. Because who are the impoverished people that are fleeing and coming into this country? They’re Jews.” And he rallied everybody to protest and oppose the passage of the law. As we know today, he was unsuccessful.
One of the original immigration laws that passed was the Public Charge Rule in 1882. But what that did for us is it made us immediately pivot. Our volunteers, who were all set to start the settlement houses and meet the women at the docks, suddenly realized that they had to include advocacy in their efforts to help these poor Jews come in.
From that point forward, as more and more and more exclusionary immigration laws were passed. More and more members of our organization were doing legal services as opposed to social services.
And as we became a non-profit public interest law firm for immigrants, for Jewish immigrants, but that’s what we did. At the same time, the New York HIAS, who had started a year before, was fully entrenched in their refugee services provision.
And they grew up to become a national and international organization that essentially helped with the resettlement, first of Jewish and then non-Jewish refugees all over the world.
We grew up to become a law firm for Jewish legal immigrants. And then in the 1960s, the diversity lottery, immigration policy that was meant to increase diversity, was passed. The world, shamefully recognizing their poor behavior after World War II, started looking at worldwide refugee resettlement. That kind of never again, which we associate with Jews was about never again will we turn our backs on people who are being murdered.
As we know, 12 million people were murdered in World War II, and we bear some complicity in that by turning people away. The national HIAS became a liaison with the state department to deal with this whole new world of refugee resettlement.
And part of that included on the ground partners who would provide the resettlement services. At that time, the on the ground partner in Pennsylvania was Jewish Children and Family Services, and it was not us because we were a law firm.
Then in the ’70s, another pivotal moment happened. The federal government went to the national organization and said, “Hey. Don’t tell anybody, but we screwed up in Vietnam and Cambodia. There are a bunch of displaced people. You do such a good job with the Jews; would you consider helping all of these folks from Vietnam and Cambodia who we displaced?”
It was a pivotal moment in the Nations’ history, but looking to Torah, where welcoming the strangers is repeated 36 times, we said, “Okay.” From that moment on, the nation started helping every one of all faiths. Although still a law firm in Pennsylvania, we were certainly aware of each other and of people in the immigration and refugee space. And we made the same pivot, to start helping everybody.
In 1980, the Refugee Resettlement Act was passed, and that created the current structure of refugee resettlement, which involves nine national agencies, of which the New York HIAS is one of them.
And then several affiliates on the ground providing the services. At that time, there was the Jewish Children and Family Services. We created this substantial pipeline. It went from the state department to the national organization to Jewish Children and Family Services to provide resettlement. We were to provide the legal services once they arrived.
It’s fascinating. Just hearing the resettlement services versus legal services is an essential distinction for people to understand. Could you briefly tell us what is a Public Charge Rule. It is something that has been part of our current dialogue because the previous administration had put some Public Charge Rules in place to further limit immigration to the United States.
The original Public Charge Rule, much like the modern-day, was a rule that said that if you are likely to need public support, then you can’t immigrate to the United States. Already belaying the lie, the quote of ‘give me your tired, you’re poor, your masses yearning to be free,’ correct? At the time though the original Public Charge Rule was much less strict. It had a kind of loose injunction that if you think that you’re going to be a public charge then you might have to prove that you won’t be. That you have some relatives or that you have a job lined up or that you have contacts that will enable you to get a job, something like that or just simply that you swear you’ll never take a public resource.
Over time, those relatively loose rules have gotten stricter and stricter and stricter until the Trump administration proposed the most restrictive rules that we’ve ever seen. Thankfully, however the Biden administration has rolled those back.
But the Trump administration had said basically, “If you can’t prove that you have a certain amount of money, you are not allowed into this country. Period. The end.”
Which really makes no sense for most immigrants who are in fact poor. As we know from our history, they come here to build up into enormous wealth with their resilience and their courage.
Yes. They need opportunity.
The next big pivot was in 2000, when Jewish Children and Family Services decided that they were going to get out of the resettlement business. And focus more on the other things that they do, adoption and family counseling. And we looked at ourselves and said, “Well, we’ll do it.” That was a massive moment because, as I said, we were a public interest law firm.
It meant we were taking on this federal program where we would meet refugees at the airport, find them their first houses in the United States, and we would get the medical care and English language lessons and help them open a bank account and get them employment assistance and get them culturally oriented to the United States before they were sort of sent on their way to go forth and become a contributor.
It was a big moment when we took over that program. We were initially very tiny because it was new for us and we didn’t want to mess anything up. But we grew, and before the Trump administration, we were resettling between 200 refugees a year, and that was an extraordinary expansion of our work into the immigrant space.
It gave us this whole perspective on how critical these support services are to stability and success. That’s where we are. We’re independent of the national but affiliated for purposes of resettlement.
And it’s a very broad umbrella of services that you provide at this point beyond being a legal service provider, which is something I didn’t know. We’ve partnered with you at immigrants’ rights action on some legal clinics. I’ve been much more familiar with that sort of support you’ve provided to immigrants in our community.
Are there other organizations doing what you do, or are you, in many cases, the sole provider of specific services in our area and Pennsylvania for immigrants and refugees?
The other agency, the other non-profit in our area that is a sister organization, is Nationality Services Center.
And I love to call them the yin to our yang. Nationality Services Center had its beginning also in the early 1880s.
But they started with refugee resettlement and added the legal piece later. They have a much larger resettlement and social services program and a much smaller-
We partner on a lot of things together. A terrific example of how we partner effectively is something called the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience.
Which is a unique program for immigrant victims of torture.
And people who have been victims can contact our organizations, and then get a whole panoply of linguistically and culturally appropriate social services from Nationality Services Center.
And we will provide legal services to help them obtain asylum, help them with legal needs post-asylum, help them petition for family members, etc.
And that’s how we work together very effectively.
I think circumstances probably forced some of these ideas to the surface and I think in the late 1800s were starting to see some restrictive immigration laws come into play. Currently, when you talk to people about immigration, I think the popular conception is that there’s a process, there’s a line that you stand in, and if you want to do it the right way, you get in line and you follow the legal process, and you have a path to immigration.
Is that public perception of the immigration process accurate?
No. Not in the least bit.
Okay. Can you explain for us why not?
The short answer that everybody understands in terms of where we are in modern day; is it’s extraordinarily difficult to get any kind of visa to come over here, except for a tourist visa.
Right. We’re talking about work visas, permanent residence status.
Work visas, permanent residence, asylum, refugee status, all those things. They’re all extraordinarily difficult for different reasons. This notion that there is a line, there is no line. There is no straightforward way to immigrate to the United States.
If you want to come here and overseas, you can go to a counselor’s office or go to a United States immigration attorney to find out your options. They’ll be counseled and then they can get in line.
And then, regardless of what pathway the person may be eligible for, they’re all backlogged. There isn’t sufficient staffing; the processing has been rendered complex to the point of insanity.
There are, for example, people who are eligible to immigrate based on a family relationship.
Something that American law has always prioritized.
It can take as long as 15 or 20 years for the family petition to be approved.
Yes. I’m aware of this because at Immigrant Rights Action right now, we have just mounted a case with our local Congressperson for a man who has been in fear of removal from living with his wife and his young child and whose case has been going through the system for more than 15 years.
That’s not surprising. And there’s all kinds of peculiar processes that are built into the law, for example, you can petition for an unmarried child who is under 21.
And people petition for their children who are unmarried and under 21 and it takes longer that they suddenly are over 21 and married.
Then it’s a disqualification.
Correct, and aged out of the qualification. Immigration law has made some ways to kind of get around that, but as you can imagine, it’s crazy.
Yes. It’s been very challenging for people to understand that it takes patience and the willingness to put your life on hold for many, many years. You have no certainty.
That’s the first thing to understand about modern-day immigration. Still I think a broader context is essential, particularly at this moment, which we touched on with the history of HIAS PA, the Public Charge Rule. One of the other earliest immigration laws was the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The history of American immigration law is a history of just exclusionary and discriminatory laws. That’s what immigration law is. It’s the codification of discrimination based on various public moods at the time.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you think about things that all of us have been talking about for the last five years: what does it mean to have borders? Shouldn’t we be able to control who comes into our country and who doesn’t? Don’t we need to have security vetting?
I think the short answer to all those questions is yes. Why does figuring out those answers result in exclusion as opposed to safe and orderly inclusion?
That’s an excellent point.
And hindsight is always 20/20, right? But if you look back and you look at our laws, it seems to me that very thoughtless people were like, “We have to do something about our borders. Let’s keep people out.”
There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about what that would mean or why we would want to behave that way instead of an alternative method. Once the first kind of brick in the wall was laid with an exclusion then various things piled on top as each population and Congress decided, we don’t want those people, and we don’t want those people, and we don’t want those people.
That’s what our immigration laws are now.
One of the very first tragedies, the Chinese Exclusion Act, was passed because of backlash that happened when the United States wanted to build the railroad; they needed workers.
China at the time needed stimulus to its economy. The American government made a treaty with the Chinese emperor to saying, “We will encourage people to come over, we will pay them a good wage, they’ll build our railroads, send money back home, your economy will be good, we’ll get our railroad built, everybody will be happy.” We signed that treaty and it worked. Thousands of Chinese laborers came, and they built our railroads.
Building the railroads didn’t happen overnight. While they were here, they met people, they married people, they had children.
Once the railroad was built, white people who were here looked around and said, “Oh my goodness. We’re going to get overrun by all these Chinese.” Suddenly there was this movement to keep Chinese people out and, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. In a very famous and heartbreaking Supreme Court case at the time, a Chinese laborer who came over under the treaty built the railroad, married, had two or three children and then got word that his father in China was sick and was dying.
He went back to China to take care of his father, and while he was there, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed. When he tried to come back into the country, he was told, “No Chinese are allowed anymore.” He appealed and fought his way to the Supreme Court and he lost. He died in China. Never seeing his kids or his wife again. This is our history.
That’s how we began. It’s terrible, and it’s a shame. We need a lot more than tweaks that allow a pathway to citizenship. We need to flip the narrative to one that says, “How do we have orderly and safe inclusion?” And exclusion.
It may be a subject for another day, perhaps, but I think much of that exclusion has been based on racial perceptions at a specific point in our history. It’s always an eye-opener to me and others, when I share this information, to know that, for example, when Italians and the Irish, immigrated to the United States they were not considered white.
And I think for many people that notion today is challenging to understand, but it was a prevalent sentiment when many Italians were immigrating.
It shows you how race is just a tool for division and hatred. It’s a construct that isn’t real.
And whenever the people in power wanted to make sure that everybody knew who was not in control, they declared all those people to be non-white. Jews weren’t considered white either.
And of course, today, there are many, many Jews of color, but the Jews fleeing from Russia, today we would see them as white people.
And then we did not. It also is a good demonstration of how fluid that construct is.
Could you talk a little bit about why immigration issues are not just something that impacts immigrants? Why are immigration issues important to the larger population and our democracy?
There’re essentially three reasons if I can kind of boil it down and oversimplify.
That would be great.
And without necessarily prioritizing them, but one is economic. Over and over and over, from the Department of Labor, non-profit institutions, bipartisan think tanks, it just consistently shows that immigrants are economic engines.
Every time a town has suffered depression for one reason or another, whether it’s because of industry fleeing or some kind of problem or demographics, where a town has gone down, the town has made steps to attract immigrants, it has rebounded. If they haven’t, it hasn’t.
It’s just to repeat troupes about economic denial of what immigrants bring, and it’s just spreading false news. It is clear we have lots and lots of data. Immigrants help the economy. And it makes perfect sense that they do. There’re two concrete reasons. One, what a lot of people don’t understand is undocumented immigrants pay taxes.
Yes. I think that is a stunning piece of information for many people, and Pennsylvania, the numbers are pretty high. Something like 14 million dollars a year in taxes.
It’s millions and millions, and it adds billions to the American economy.
Why do immigrants pay taxes when it’s unclear how it would be enforced against them? Because paying taxes is a requirement to get to any next stage of immigration relief. Immigrants know that. They understand if they are going to get this country to accept them and authorize them, they must play by the rules to get the relief they’re looking for. And they understand right away that the first rule is, pay your taxes.
I think the other component they pay into the system, but they’re not allowed to take any services out. For example, we have a board member at Immigrant Rights Action who is a DACA recipient. She can’t go to the community college at community college rates; she pay’s the international student rate.
That’s exactly right. And ironic that there is nothing that says taxation without representation, better, right? Not allowed to vote. They’re not even allowed to hope to vote, right? Because under current law a recipient has no ability to become a citizen and vote.
All they can do is pay approximately $900 every two years for the privilege of being able to work and pay taxes and in no other way benefit from American society.
It’s maddening that a country founded on the principle of no taxation without representation would then turn around and do this to everybody who comes here.
Taxes are a huge reason why and how immigrants contribute to the economy, regardless of status. The Department of Labor statistics has shown that immigrants are much more likely than their American counterparts to become entrepreneurs and employ other people, including citizens. Now, why should that be true? Again, it makes perfect sense related to the second reason why immigrants are such an important contributor to American society.
If you were to feel compelled to leave your home, it could be something horrible, like persecution from your government. Or it could be your town is going through a depression. You can’t get a job. You’re struggling to feed your kids. It’s getting worse every day. And you decide you must get out. Think about the fact that you’re willing to give up everything you know and own, every custom, your native language, every person you love, to go thousands of miles away to a future you know nothing about and start all over again.
That takes the kind of courage that most people don’t have. If you’ve made that journey, you’re already the kind of person that’s willing to take a risk – one to risk everything. And of course, the thought of starting your own business. Based on what we know of immigrants, they are entrepreneurs, that’s why they’re economic contributors.
The additional reason why there are significant contributors is mainly for people who are seeking asylum or refugees.
Those are people who have fled because their government has persecuted them.
As we have learned quite painfully, we don’t have a perfect government, we don’t have ideal law enforcement.
We have lots of crime, but our ideals are still what we try to get up for and do in the morning every single day. There is no one that better understands those ideals than someone who had to flee, leaving everything they owned and loved because there were no more ideals where they came from. They couldn’t survive, because their own government was intent on killing them or their loved ones.
Or was standing by as other organizations and criminal elements in that society killed them.
It’s those people that come here and know firsthand what it’s like to live without freedom. They will die to defend what we have. I think about modern-day Americans who are fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth generation because we’re all immigrants. We start to lose that perspective. And that’s a critical perspective.
And I can give you a moving direct example – a client in my office had an appointment with one of my attorneys. And the way our office was structured pre-pandemic, for me to just get a drink of water, I had to pass by the lobby.
I saw this man there, and I smiled at him, and he’d never seen his attorney. He thought I was coming to get him. I was just walking by, but he thought I was coming to get him.
He immediately grabbed my hand, and he said,
“I’m sorry that I’m late. I must tell you; I was late. I started out I left my house early and because I was early I stopped at Starbucks to get a cup of coffee. Still, when I went inside the door there was a long line. There was a woman with hijab and a man with a skull cap, a yarmulke, and another woman with a cross around her neck and they were all just waiting in line for a cup of coffee. I was so overcome that I left the Starbucks and I fell down on the sidewalk and I started crying. And that’s why I’m late.”
If that doesn’t tell you who you want to be a fellow American, nothing will. That’s why we’re here. That the courage, the resilience, the understanding in your bones of what freedom means, and the economic contributions.
There’s every reason to welcome immigrants from all over the world. All we need to do at our borders is figure out an orderly fashion to do it.
We’re going to take a quick break for an announcement from our sponsor. When we come back, we’ll talk about trends in immigration, how the pandemic has affected immigration, and the changes taking place under the Biden administration. If you want to learn more about the work of HIAS PA and how you can get involved, visit HIASpa.org
We’ve covered some of the historical components of immigration and of HIAS PA. Can we talk a bit of current trends and the two big trends that impact your work? One would be the changes in administrations, particularly as administrations have started to rely on executive orders, which I think impacts how you move forward. And then the other is when it’s impacted all of us, which is the pandemic.
Can you talk a bit about current trends for you as a legal services provider? What does it look like these days? What’s impacting you?
Everything is impacting our work. There are struggles that we continue with on behalf of our clients and what they are still living under. I’ll go into them in a moment, but I do want to acknowledge that the change in administration was terrific for ourselves and our clients. I want to be clear that the breath that we all took wasn’t only about hope for better policies. It was without exaggeration about letting go of the hatred.
The executive orders and the policies and the rules that the prior administration passed were not only harmful and shameful, but the words used that the public didn’t see were awful. We saw them; we’re lawyers.
We have copies of the executive orders.
We have copies of every regulation proposed or passed that legally we could have appropriately.
And we read every single one of them and they were breathtakingly horrifying. The way that our clients were referred to, the language that was used.
The failure to account for obvious lack of humanitarian impacts, to be clear, I don’t think any of our staff have ever encountered. Even post 9/11, when there were a lot of restrictive immigration policies put in place. None of those policies referred to our clients the way these documents did.
So, that is over. One of the wonderful things that happened just this morning, is we received a new memo from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol ordering new language to be used: Our clients will no longer be referred to as aliens; they’ll be referred to as undocumented people.
And I am confident that the Biden administration, even the new folks who had nothing to do with the Trump administration, weren’t part of it, only read the newspaper stories the way we did. When they came in, and they saw those memos, they had the same reaction, and that’s why they issued this memo.
Because they realized how important the language was.
And words are important because they set the public narrative.
It seems some words that are used simply to trigger specific emotional responses. Both positive and negative.
And I think that many people in the immigration space would say that there were issues with our policy well before the Trump administration. There were difficulties. But the tone, the tenor, the extremity, and just the lack of humanity, and the policies that we saw in the last four years was a departure from what we’ve seen in the past.
Words matter. We are happy to put that behind us. That said, there obviously is clearly much work to be done; both positive and negative. On the positive side, the Liberian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Program was renewed for another year. This helps the Liberian community achieve some much-needed relief. But once again, the renewal was a year and here we are, it’s April, the deadline’s December. And it requires a lot of activity on our part to be doing outreach, meeting with clients, and processing the paperwork.
Similarly, Venezuelan Temporary Protective Status has also been renewed. For Venezuelan’s, it’s wonderful. We’re very excited.
The United States Citizenship Act was proposed in Congress, and we want to make sure that it passes. At the same time, we want to do some advocacy around some of the more hurtful provisions contained in it relating to criminal convictions.
One of the bad things about immigration law that existed long before Trump, I don’t want to characterize it as Trumpism, is this use of our criminal justice system as a proxy for safety.
What do you mean by that?
Our immigration system says if you have an arrest for certain types of crimes or if you have a conviction for certain types of crimes, then you’re automatically barred from achieving certain legal statuses on its face, that sounds perfectly fine. However, haven’t we just learned over the last year, if not before, that our criminal justice system targets people of color and not only targets them, but trumps up charges, engages in wrongdoing, engages in prosecutorial misconduct? Not all the time and not in every case.
But in much larger numbers. And that implicit bias is a rampant poison throughout our criminal justice system, implicit bias against people of color. How does that impact immigrants of color? The same way it impacts citizens of color.
If you are a person of color and you’re driving a car you will be pulled over. And if you happen to also be an immigrant you will then be detained. And there will be an arrest on your record, which interferes with your ability to get new status.
And these kinds of criminal bars start from a very young age. Juvenile records. For American citizens, juvenile records of a certain sort of caliber can be sealed or expunged, so, as an adult, it doesn’t follow you forever.
Not true for immigrant children. Immigrant children who have juvenile records whose records might be sealed or expunged, when they become adults have to fess up to what they did as a juvenile, and when they do, that becomes a barrier.
As an example, a child who shoplifted because they were hungry.
Or they may have smoked a joint or anything for which a juvenile would be arrested. Using a flawed criminal justice system as a proxy for our country’s safety makes no sense.
And I understand fixing our criminal justice system is not going to happen overnight but, we shouldn’t necessarily think we can’t do anything on immigration until we fix our criminal justice system. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is let’s recognize that using this proxy doesn’t work because the system is flawed, and let’s find some other way. And the truth is we have different ways.
I’ll give you an example. Refugees. Once they are declared to be a refugee as that term is defined internationally, there is a process to determine what country they should go to.
If determined that they go to the United States, they must go through the American vetting process.
That process is the most rigorous in the world. It has been since 9/11.
It’s an eight-step process. It involves the coordination and cooperation of international police forces all over the world.
And it’s extraordinarily rigorous, and there has never been a refugee who, after they arrived, was convicted of a crime here.
That shows you it works.
I think that’s a statistic that would shock people.
You’re correct, and there are mechanisms in place for ensuring that the person is not dangerous. We should use those instead of the flawed ones.
That makes perfect sense. Thank you for explaining that.
That’s something that we want to advocate for – getting back to the original question, which is how it has impacted our agency. Again, the short answer is trying to boil it down because I understand there’s a lot of information, is we’re busier than ever. Children are getting permitted to enter the country again. We have an immigrant youth program.
When children were not allowed in the country under Trump, they disappeared from the shelters we served. We were kept busy by serving the immigrant children here, but we weren’t helping the shelters. Now the shelters have filled up. In the last three weeks we’ve already interviewed 50 children.
Are these children who are coming without an adult?
Yes. They’re unaccompanied minors.
And I do want to take just a slight digression to talk about that because I know the headlines have been very hysterical about all these unaccompanied minors, all these people coming to the border. There’s a lot of people coming to the border. Some of them have been stuck there. A large part of what’s happening, is just what happens when you take a dam that the prior president built and you break it down. The water floods over.
That is predictable, and it’s not any cause for alarm. That said, there are more immigrants than those built up at the border that are coming.
That is cause for alarm, but not alarm for us. Because these are people, again, remember what I said in the beginning. They’re bringing their courage, their resilience, their love of freedom, and their grit to our country in a time when we most need them because of the pandemic.
The alarm that we should be having, and we should have this with all countries in the world that are accepting record numbers of migrants is because of what we call the push factors. It’s because of what drove them. We should be concerned that the number of displaced people in the world. It is currently at 79 million, the highest number that it’s ever been.
It’s a clear indication that because of climate change, civil unrest, and deep poverty, the world is on fire and we should be concerned about that. We should be leaders amongst our allies to figure out what can we do about these push factors. How can we help stabilize all these countries that are falling apart?
How can we help with climate change? And of course, I don’t have the answers. Much more intelligent people than me hopefully will get to those answers through collaboration. And they should be engaging in that work. Meanwhile, while they’re engaging in that work, we can handle it. We can resettle people.
We can do so in an orderly fashion, and we can do more than ever before. Why? Because there’s a worldwide pandemic that has created a massive economic depression. It has killed millions of people. In the United States our birth rate has been going down steadily, decreasing for 11 years running.
We have no new people, we have no old people, and we have an economic depression. This is a recipe for a perfect environment for supporting immigrants to come in and rescue us. And rescue all of us. There’s no cause for alarm about floods. We just need processes, that’s all we need.
And we need to be meeting with leaders about the push factors because they are alarming.
And all of this is so interconnected that that’s the other component of this. When people try to isolate these issues and deal with them in exclusion of other factors, I believe during the last administration that aid to the northern triangle countries where crime and violence are endemic and instability is extreme as is poverty. Aid was cut to those countries. Quite significantly and the wrong way to go, if we want to stabilize the population in their countries of origin.
It was the wrong direction to go and only one of many wrong steps that we took. Another thing that we did when we expelled all the immigrant children, we sent them back. First, we kept them in Mexico, where they got infected with COVID-19. Then we sent them back to Guatemala, where they infected all their neighbors. We contributed to the public health crisis in record numbers. There’s many short-sighted failures to see how things are connected that we hope are different now.
We must learn how to work together. Wiley E. Coyote tries all these ways to stop Road Runner, and they always blow up in his face, but one thing that he does, is he keeps trying. Now, he never succeeds. I’m not suggesting, and I hope that won’t be true of us. One of the things we do is throw money at a problem, then it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work fast enough, and we pull the money. But there’s a lot of ways to solve a problem. There’s also a lot of ways to define success. We can’t solve the push problems without money. It does require some investment, but it also requires more cultural humility, more cultural understanding, and it requires understanding being in it for the long haul – not being impatient, which is an American characteristic.
One of our hallmarks, yes.
We invest in things because it’s politically expedient, and then the next administration comes in and decides they change their mind, and then we reinvest and then we re-pull and that doesn’t help anybody. You must have a long plan, a long game that’s several generations, that again, comes to it with cultural humility. It’s very important that we consult with and have better understandings of the directly impacted so that we can have a better understanding that we have a shared goal.
Because that’s the other problem. We often look at foreign governments and don’t like that particular person because they will be bad for American interest. Then we fund the opposing party without any understanding of whether the opposing party is valid, whether that’s the right way to handle it, whether it’s true that the person we don’t like is going to hurt us or whether it’s a boogeyman that we’ve created.
I mean, there’s all kinds of nuances to how we look at a foreign government and what they’re doing. By not having cultural humility when we think about it, we’re apt to come up with the wrong response.
Yeah. I like that phrase, cultural humility.
It’s not mine. I wish I could take credit for it, but it is a good phrase because I think it’s appropriate. Our goal is not to make every country America. Our goal is to have stability and safety.
Cathryn, tell me a bit about what drew you to this area of the law. Did you always know you wanted to be in the immigration sphere? You’ve always had an interest in non-profit, social justice, supporting communities that are under-supported and underserved.
What led you to that work and then specifically how did you get to immigration?
I’m happy to answer, but it’s amusing and personal.
You answer however you’re comfortable. That’s fine.
I’m comfortable, but it’s just funny. It’s not because I was born to do immigration work. As you indicated, I’ve always done social justice work. That’s why I went to law school. It was to do social justice work. Before I went to law school, I was a classically trained musician.
Prior to law school I was a classically trained musician and I decided to quit that because I felt, the way I was engaging with music was very self-involved. I’m a very competitive person. I wanted to just win every competition and all of that. It felt very disheartening. I wouldn’t like myself if I continued in the vein. I quit and suddenly had to figure out what I was going to do with my life because I’d done music all my life since I was a small child.
I very naively felt like I just want to help people. I don’t know how to do that. My thought at the time was lawyer or doctor. I couldn’t be a doctor because I am terribly squeamish and not good at science so I thought, “Yeah. That’s not for me.” Which left law.
I applied to law school very clear eyed about wanting to do public service, but not clear-eyed on what that meant. I would figure it out when I got to law school.
I went to Penn, and there was a woman at the time, Judi Bernstein-Baker; you may have heard of her. She was the director of public interest programming when I went. I knew her name because she appeared on a brochure about Penn Law and its public interest offerings. On my first day, I went to introduce myself to her to say, “I’m interested in doing public service. I don’t particularly know what that means.”
“Can you help me?”
And that’s what I did, and we were fast friends, and she became a critical mentor for me. Very supportive all through my law school career. And then we stayed in touch. As it happens, I married a classmate of mine who’s African American, and Judi’s husband is also an African American lawyer. We had interfaith, interracial and a sense of public interest between us all.
She left Penn to become executive director of HIAS PA in 1998.
And that was the year I was married. Judi and her husband were invited to the wedding. I kind of went on in my career of representing low-income parents, representing people with AIDS, doing a lot of very direct service public interest work. In 2011 I was burnt out. I’d been representing people with AIDS for 11 years. I’d gone to a lot of funerals. I felt like I needed a break, and I needed some reflection time. I applied for a clinical teaching position at Villanova.
I got the position and was thrilled. I did a lot of writing. It was a good sort of healing experience for me. And I was supervising students who were representing low-income people in Delaware County in civil proceedings. I was still doing service work, but it was once removed because it was my students who were the attorneys.
The teaching position was a three-year fellowship. It was the third year of my fellowship and I knew it was time for me to look for another job. And I was kind of looking around, applying to other places. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next, and I ran into Judi at a Christmas function.
We were happy to see each other, and she asked, “What are you up to these days?” And I said, “Well, actually, I’m looking for another job.” And she said, “Have I got a job for you.”
And it happens to be.
Right. Because she was looking for a deputy director.
And she wanted me to apply, and I said, “Well, Judi, I don’t know anything about immigration.” She said, “Don’t worry. You’ll learn.” I applied and as it turned out the night before my job interview, I was talking to my parents and I said, “I have an interview with this organization. HIAS PA.” And my mother said, “HIAS? That’s who settled Uncle Beyla.
I had a great uncle who I have met but he died when I was three. I don’t have a lot of memories, but I know the legends about him because he was in four different concentration camps.
This was before my relatives were able to find the HIAS national office in Hungary and get him rescued out of Romania and resettled in New York and that was my great uncle and that was his story.
I had a great story to tell at my interview.
Yeah. And you got the job.
And I got the job and it’s been wonderful. I mean, it’s been much more than I could have ever dreamed. The work is critically important and my colleagues are fabulous. And international. A third of our staff are immigrants and refugees.
We’re multi-lingual. Between us we speak 22 languages.
Wow. That’s wonderful.
Yeah. That sounds like a great environment.
It’s wonderful work.
If somebody wants to get involved in HIAS PA, either as a legal professional or as a layperson, how do they engage with your organization?
I’m glad you asked the question. I hope everyone listening to this will do this: sign up for our newsletter. I know nobody needs more email. I understand that. We try hard to be reasonable about how many emails we send. Our emails are essential. It’s how we educate people about immigration issues and advocacy activities and ways to volunteer, and events that support our organization. If you get on our email list, then you’ll be involved right away.
The next is to volunteer, and we have lots of volunteer opportunities for lawyers and other professionals and for laypeople alike. They run the gamut of kind of short-term housing setup, which involves just devoting an afternoon to much longer term. Something we call the Philadelphia Neighbor Program, which involves a big commitment, both physical and emotional. You take on being the American friend of some of our needier clients, which means that you’ll be in contact with them almost daily, you’ll be supporting them, potentially financially.
You’ll be taking them to doctors’ appointments, to English class, interacting with their kids. That opportunity, you must obviously be willing to sign up for that.
That said, our Philly neighbors are like our happiest volunteers because they gain more family members.
Yes. And I think because they also see such a direct impact on somebody’s life.
We have lots of opportunities, between the once and done and the huge commitment, all on our website.
Can you give our audience your website and address and we’ll also be sure to put it in the transcript, which we’ll post on our website?
Absolutely. It’s www.hias H-I-A-S PA. The PA is very important because if you leave out the PA, you’ll be taken to the other HIAS who’s not us. It’s hiaspa.org.
And one other note about volunteering. Obviously, the pandemic has interfered with many of our volunteer opportunities and they have been put on pause. But we have figured out some remote opportunities. First, don’t get discouraged. And second, more and more people are getting vaccines. And we are in the process of developing protocols for a reopened world.
I can’t thank you enough. It has been wonderful to speak with you. You’re an articulate, and passionate advocate for immigrants and I thank you for your very clear explanation of something that’s a very complex subject. I appreciate you joining us today.
Happy to do it. And thank you very much for having me. I appreciate any opportunity to get the facts out about what’s happening.
Connect & Learn More
Connect on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/cathryn-miller-wilson-7867a963
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Connect on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/leslie-richards-0077844/
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