For more than two decades, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who died this morning at age 89, championed legislation that created a safe escape route to freedom for persecuted religious minorities from many corners of the globe.
Today, HIAS joins the people of New Jersey and America in mourning his loss.
Growing up poor and the son of Jewish immigrants in Paterson turned Frank Lautenberg into a fighter, not just for the people of New Jersey, but for those living in danger many thousands of miles away.
At a Washington DC Hillel event last week honoring the Senator, his wife Bonnie spoke poignantly, sharing that the Lautenberg Amendment was the Senator’s “proudest accomplishment.”
Since 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment has allowed thousands of Jews and other religious minorities from the former Soviet Union (FSU) to resettle in the U.S. as refugees. Today, the Lautenberg Amendment mostly helps Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran.
Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ President and CEO, said, “Senator Lautenberg has earned the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of refugees for providing them with the opportunity to start new lives in the United States in safety, peace, and freedom. Both the refugees and our country have tremendously benefitted from the Lautenberg Amendment. His memory will be a blessing to all of us.”
The Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, S. 744, seeks to preserve Senator Lautenberg’s legacy of protecting persecuted religious minorities, while creating new opportunities for other persecuted groups—with an emphasis on those seeking religious freedom—to receive protection.
“We are particularly grateful to Senator Lautenberg for his decades of unwavering commitment and leadership in protecting Jews and others who face persecution for their beliefs,” Hetfield said.
Mark Hetfield attended last week’s event honoring the Senator together with HIAS Board members Neil Moss, Marc Silberberg and Dianne Lob. While the Senator could not attend, most of the testimonies of the evening were about the importance of the Lautenberg Amendment in renewing Jewish lives and the lives of other persecuted religious minority members.
At the event, NCSJ (National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia) awarded their first Lautenberg Prize to the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Upon accepting it, Executive Director Ilia Salita spoke of other HIAS clients, noting that Russian speaking Jewish immigrants have brought to this country everything from "recipes for kugel to recipes for Google ..."
Senator Lautenberg has earned the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of refugees and refugee agencies like HIAS that have relied on his commitment to this legacy legislation and the countless lives it has saved. HIAS will continue to work to ensure that his legacy is honored in the current immigration reform debate and beyond.