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HIAS President: U.S., Europe Treating Migrant Crisis Like 'Business As Usual'


The United States has taken in 1,500 Syrian refugees since the conflict in that country started four years ago. Our next guest thinks the U.S. could and should be doing a lot more. He's Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS - that used to be the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It is the oldest voluntary resettlement agency in the world and one of the biggest in this country. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: The U.S. State Department has indicated the U.S. could accept as many 8,000 Syrians in the coming fiscal year. What more do you think the U.S. should be doing?

HETFIELD: The U.S. should be doing a lot more. We're living through the biggest refugee crisis, certainly, of my lifetime. We have 200,000 dead in Syria. We have people who are fleeing not once, but twice from the conflict. And frankly, the United States and many countries in Europe are treating this like it's business as usual. Taking 8,000 refugees - let alone the 1,800 they might take this year - is not a serious response.

SIEGEL: What's a serious response? What's a number that's a serious response?

HETFIELD: Frankly, well, look at what we did in 1980, during the Indochina boat crisis. We took it over 200,000 refugees with no infrastructure in place to do so, and these were boat people. These weren't people who were coming to our shores; they were in Asia. We were able to mobilize and take 200,000. We should be looking at that number today.

SIEGEL: Of course, there's always a question of how much does this involve my country? The Indochinese boat people were fleeing after the failed U.S. effort in Indochina and the collapse of South Vietnam. So there was some American sense of, this is happening because of us.

HETFIELD: Yes, and there are many who feel that we have some responsibility for the chaos that's ensuing in the Middle East. Remember that much of what's going on in Syria right now actually started in Iraq, and those two crises are very much connected right now with ISIS. So there is some responsibility there.

SIEGEL: Many refugees coming out of Syria want to go to Germany, not just because it's a wealthy country, but because they already have some family there. Are there large numbers of Syrians who specifically really want to come to the U.S. instead?

HETFIELD: Yeah, there are, but there's not a way for them to do it. The U.S. refugee program is very, very slow. It's become very bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy. It's no longer a rescue program. It takes years to get across it, and refugees can't wait that long.

SIEGEL: HIAS was founded in 1881. I assume that it helped out all of my grandparents, all of them East European Jews who came to this country around 1890 or so. We could say they were fleeing the lack of opportunity and pogroms in Russia, but they were here to stay. They're immigrants.


SIEGEL: The I in HIAS was for immigrants. When we speak of refugees, should European countries assume that the refugees are there to stay and they're there to make or that they're going to return to a peaceful Syria when that is someday established?

HETFIELD: Well, you have to assume that they're there to stay. Obviously, a refugee wants to go back. They should be permitted to go back. But as it was in the case of the Jews who fled Russia in 1881 when your grandparents fled, it took over 120 years, and they still can't really think about going back.

SIEGEL: So no desire whatever (laughter)...


SIEGEL: ...To go back, on the part of their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

HETFIELD: Right, and this is a problem that we have globally with refugees. Refugees are in camps because it's a temporary situation. Now, in places like Kenya, you have refugees who are in their third generation of being in a camp. You need to integrate refugees. And if you do that, you won't regret it because they will be successful. They will contribute, but not if you segregate them and treat them as temporary transient migrants.

SIEGEL: I remember reading that one of the obstacles facing German Jews who were trying to get out of Germany and into the United States on the eve of the Second World War or during the Second World War was that they were German nationals. And there was this huge concern that, among them, there would be some spies who would infiltrate into the United States. That seems to be part of the Syrians' problem as well - that they have to be vetted to make sure that we're not admitting some ISIS terrorists among them.

HETFIELD: Yeah, that's exactly the problem, is that the United States government and the Homeland Security apparatus has confused the people who are fleeing terror with the terrorists. These are people that are fleeing the civil war. These are not the people instigating the human rights violations that led to the civil war. And the security check process, it's done in a black box. It's not transparent. No one really knows what goes on there. What we do know is that it takes several years to get through it.

SIEGEL: Mark Hetfield, thanks for talking with us.

HETFIELD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS, which used to be called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.