Over the course of his campaign, presidential candidate Donald Trump rallied crowds around hypothetical measures to regulate the Muslim population in the United States, including closing mosques, keeping a register of Muslim citizens, and limiting immigration. When, seven days after taking office, he halted travel from six predominantly Muslim countries and banned entry for Syrian refugees indefinitely, chaos broke out at airports around the country. This move, according to many — including former Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani — was Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban.”
The first two bans were blocked, but a third was implemented in October. On November 13, Jewish Family Service of Seattle filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration, claiming that the third iteration of the ban “implements Donald Trump’s and his Administration’s often repeated goal of banning Muslim refugees from the country.” JFS, along with co-plaintiff Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley and individuals affected by the order, argued that the ban violates the First Amendment’s clause protecting freedom of religion, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s clause guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Furthermore, the ban is “arbitrary, capricious, [and] an abuse of discretion.”
The latest order continued the suspension of the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by blocking all refugees from 11 countries — all but two being Muslim majority — for at least 90 days, and indefinitely suspending the follow-to-join process that reunites families. JFS argues that the administration has not given any justification for the suspension of USRAP, despite having spent months reviewing it.
Jewish Family Service opened in 1892 to “distribute alms” to “worthy persons of the Hebrew Nationality who may be in indigent circumstances.” That mission evolved over the next 125 years as the Jewish community faced crises like World War II and Jewish flight from the Soviet Union. As the wave of Russian immigration ebbed, JFS found that it had built up an infrastructure to serve refugees. Rather than close it down, the organization began to offer its services to new arrivals, a direction it views in line with Jewish values. “It’s what we ought to be doing,” says CEO Rabbi Will Berkovitz. “If we can understand anyone’s experience, it’s the experience of the refugee. It’s what we need to keep doing.”
Currently, JFS resettles around 300 refugees each year from countries affected by the ban, as well as from countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The populations include persecuted religious minorities, LGBT individuals in danger, and Iraqi and Afghan special forces who have helped US efforts in the region. Refugees undergo years of background checks before the State Department approves them, during which time many subsist in refugee camps. “The collective experience is a lot like the Jewish community experience,” Berkovitz says. “You want to get out and save your family.”
JFS helps new arrivals secure housing and assists them with obtaining health care, employment, and school enrollment, as well as educating them about cultural norms and basics, such as how to use the bus. Any severe restrictions on immigration will end up limiting these offerings. “I think a lot of the community doesn’t know that we do this,” says Margaret Hinson, Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services. “As soon as a refugee arrives to SeaTac, we’re there, with an interpreter, and then we’re taking them to their new home. Our services don’t stop in those first few days.”
JFS sees its refugee work as directly tied to the commandment to welcome the stranger. “We are strongest as Jews, as a community, when we stand in confidence in our skin authentically,” Berkovitz says. “But we’re not limited to just the family around the table. The opportunity showcases something powerful to our children. It says Judaism is vital, relevant, and compelling.”
But it’s more than that, he adds. “This infrastructure of refugee resettlement is a system. If you dismantle the infrastructure, you can’t settle refugees. If there came a time in the future when the Jewish community needed resettlement, God forbid, you won’t be able to do that.”
The plaintiffs welcomed a victory on December 23, when US District Judge James Robart largely blocked the administration’s restrictions. Lawyers with the Department of Defense have since pushed back on the ruling.
For now, though, JFS is triumphant, albeit measured. “As we celebrate this moment,” Berkovitz says, “we remember our ancestors who did not have anyone standing with them or for them.”