More than 300 people gathered in Austin, Texas on February 2 for an event supporting the rights and dignity of those seeking safety in the United States. The Austin Jews for Refugees Assembly, held at the Shalom Austin JCC, was the work of an inspiring team of volunteer leaders that brought together more than 35 local organizations and provided opportunities for the Austin Jewish community to connect with advocacy and direct service opportunities.
“Our Torah teaches us 36 times to welcome the stranger,” said Bettie Forman, one of the co-chairs of the assembly’s planning committee, “so as a Jew and as a human being, I feel compelled to treat refugees and asylum seekers as we were all treated when our forefathers arrived here.”
The event focused on the dangerous and chaotic situation for asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, have trapped many asylum seekers in Mexico, where conditions are less safe, as they wait for their cases to be heard in the United States.
Another hot-button issue was Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to block refugees from resettling in his state. While that decision has been blocked by a federal court thanks to a lawsuit filed by HIAS, the Austin Jewish community remains deeply concerned about the treatment of refugees.
“Now is the time for supporters in the Austin Jewish community to let our elected officials know that we expect the U.S. to continue resettling refugees,” said Melanie Nezer, HIAS’ senior vice president of public affairs, in a speech to the assembly. “We owe our lives to the warm welcome and opportunities once provided to our relatives when they sought safety and peace in this country.”
The assembly also won support from many outside the Jewish community and local elected officials. The day began with Austin City Council Member Alison Alter reading a proclamation from Mayor Steve Adler, who declared February 2, 2020 Austin Jews for Refugees Day. She was joined at the assembly by Mayor pro tempore Delia Garza, several Texas state representatives, and others.
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, spoke powerfully about the fear many people experience when faced with the possibility of being returned to countries where they were persecuted or in danger. “I remember being on the floor of the House in my first session and getting a call from my mother…because my over-90-year-old grandmother was up all night frantically rifling through papers,” recalled Hinojosa. “Though she is a lawful permanent resident, in the anti-immigrant environment that Trump had led she was afraid ICE would show up at her door.”
There was a palpable feeling of excitement about the potential for future action, including direct service opportunities, advocacy and educational programming. Many of the attendees who spoke to HIAS representatives prefaced their conversations with stories about how HIAS assisted their own families. They felt a deep responsibility, they said, to help those harmed by the Trump administration’s dismantling of the asylum system and refugee resettlement.
HIAS will continue to work with the Austin community take action on refugee and border issues through events like National Refugee Shabbat this March, helping organize meetings with members of Congress to demand moral leadership and better protections for refugees and asylum seekers.
Bettie Forman, the assembly co-chair, said she was inspired by the enthusiasm of the Jewish community and the many agencies working to support refugees and asylum seekers in Austin. “We sent a loud and clear message to those in power that we are appalled by the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and we are going to do everything in our power to change the status quo,” she said.