Immigration in 1989, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post on the difficulties encountered by Soviet Jews requesting refugee status in the US in 1988 and 1989, as detailed in the HIAS Annual Report of 1989 .

Rejection of refugee status in 1988 and 1989 was thought by some to be related “to the continuing US budget crisis which refugee immigration and resettlement costs were exacerbating”, according to the Annual Report (page 10). Here is how the problem developed and how HIAS worked to overcome the hurdles it presented:

“All Soviet Jews historically had been admitted as refugees based on conditions inside the Soviet Union that were universally understood as adverse to Jews.” According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1989, the term ‘refugee’ means any person who is outside their country of citizenship and needs the protection of another country, such as the United States, “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality,” among other protected groups.

Attorney General Edwin Meese, head of the Justice Department under President Reagan, and therefore overseeing the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], requested that INS officers adjudicate Soviet Jews on an individual basis, ignoring many years of precedent in dealing with Soviet Jews. Meese offered them “parole in the public interest” if denied refugee status. This allowed Soviet Jews to enter the US legally, but denied them access to “the social assistance programs that accompany refugee status.” In addition an affidavit of support was required from a US sponsor.

HIAS reacted quickly, meeting in January 1989 with other Jewish communal leaders and then joined forces with the new Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; outside counsel wrote a legal memorandum with which HIAS and other immigration agencies could clearly explain their case to the new White House staff and members of Congress. Support in Congress helped convince Thornburgh by the end of the fiscal year to reverse the Meese directive.

Denials  had continued to grow over the first 6 months of 1989, and HIAS modified its processing operations, but it was determined “that only a fundamental reorientation of HIAS staff and an equally fundamental rearrangement of its systems would … significantly [reduce] … the denials.”

“It became clear that HIAS needed to retrain a staff which had never dealt with anything but a friendly and sympathetic INS.”

Refugee Denial Rates in Rome, 1988-1989

HIAS worked as quickly as possible, within the system and the policies and laws that had changed without taking into consideration the effect on those seeking refuge in the United States. Denials spiked in March 1989 and eventually, after legislative corrections, staff retraining and a 75% increase in worldwide HIAS staff, procedural changes at HIAS, and a large increase in expenses, HIAS was able to “consistently [process] a monthly flow approaching 5,000, reuniting more Jewish refugees with their stateside families than any time since World War II.”




Immigration in 1989

One excellent and concise source of information in the HIAS archives at AJHS is the run of Annual Reports, from 1912 to 2003. Many of these reports will be accessible online by the end of 2018. See also Janine’s recent post about annual reports, which includes many of the most interesting covers.

I was recently looking for information in the 1989 Annual Report, and came across a section titled, “Denials of Refugee Status by INS”. I found I was curious about the issues in play 29 years ago that posed challenges to the work that HIAS has always done – providing safe refuge for those fleeing unsafe conditions in their home country.

“INS” is short for Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency in the Department of Justice from 1940 to 2003, according to Wikipedia.

This section turns out to be part of a multi-page narrative about the growing focus for HIAS in the 1980s – Soviet Jewish migration and resettlement, which greatly increased with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The lengthy Introduction to this Annual Report deals at length with the effects of a huge flood of Soviet Jews suddenly able to leave the Soviet Union. Most of these sudden refugees departed for Israel and the United States, and HIAS was involved with both groups at their processing centers in Europe – at headquarters in Geneva, and at the HIAS offices in Vienna  and Rome.

HIAS clients in Vienna, 1989. Photo by Public Relations Director Roberta Elliott

In discussing staff changes during this very busy year, the Introduction includes this:

In New York, it was an especially stressful year for Assistant Executive Vice President Phillip Saperia. In addition to his responsibilities for staff administration and for expediting the installation of the new information storage and retrieval system, he struggled throughout the year with the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] to effect a reduction in the rate of refugee visa ‘denials’ in Rome.

The numbers tell part of the story, its unexpected magnitude:

At first, during the early months of 1989, those leaving [the Soviet Union] formed a steady stream flowing westward; by the end of the year the stream would become a torrent. By Dec. 31, 71,000 Jews had left the Soviet Union, surpassing by some 20,000 the previous high watermark in 1979.

The numbers caught everyone off guard … the ceiling [for the number of refugees permitted to enter the US] is determined from the previous year’s numbers … In October 1988, when the federal fiscal year (FFY) 1989 … ceiling was signed, it allowed 18,000 Soviet Jews to enter the US as refugees; by June, it was necessary for the Administration to amend that figure to 30,000. Then in October, the beginning of FFY90, the quota was set at 40,000. By December 31, nearly 37,000 Soviet Jews had been admitted to the US as refugees.

Since the 1960s, HIAS had registered each family in Vienna when they arrived from Moscow, and guided them through the application process with the INS in Rome, where they applied for refugee status. The sudden increase in numbers of clients threw everyone into a growing backlog. Was the INS increasing their denials of refugee status as a way to work more quickly through the backlog?

This situation was further exacerbated by the most troubling development of all: rejection of refugee status by the INS for an increasing number of Soviet Jewish applicants. The situation of ‘denials’ had been developing gradually since the fall of 1988 when in one day the INS in Rome had rejected six applications … Later, when there were 11 rejections on another day, it was clear that this was a policy decision rather than the vagaries of one officer.

How did HIAS deal with the INS on this tricky issue? To be continued in a later post.


Whom Has HIAS Helped?

The work of an immigrant aid organization is multi-faceted. We’ve written a little in the past few months about HIAS’ Government Relations department in the 1980s and 1990s and their work with legislators to maintain government funding for refugee resettlement in the United States, and to make sure everyone on staff at HIAS was aware of continual changes to the immigration laws

HIAS maintained offices in countries around the world where they helped refugees, often while in transit with visas and other documentation. HIAS overseas staff hustled to find countries that were accepting Jewish refugees for 10 years or more after World War II opening offices in Tunis, Morocco, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Quito, and elsewhere as needed, for as long as was needed. In countries where they were not able to open an office, for financial or more often political reasons, they worked through other agencies and local groups.

And of course HIAS issued regular reports summarizing their works. We’ve mentioned in previous posts how useful the annual reports are as quick reference to annual summaries. There were also a compilation called “Statistical Abstract”, issued by various departments through the decades, often quarterly. A quick glance at some of the information in these statistical abstract reports gives us an interesting comparison with immigration today. Below are pages from an issue of “Statistical Abstract” from 1960, then issued by the Division of Research and Statistics headed by Ilya Dijour, from a few years after it began publication:

Statistical Abstract, first quarter of 1960 – cover
Page 1
Page 2
page 3
Page 4
Page 5

At a later date, with enough funding, the full run should be digitized; it’s a great resource.


More than just a pretty facade: HIAS at Lafayette Street

The Astor Library in 1854.
Unknown – Harry Miller Lydenberg (July 1916). “History of the New York Public Library”. Bulletin of the New York Public Library 20: 570-571.; first published in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion

The building that stands at 425 Lafayette Street today was originally built as a home for the East Village’s lavish Astor Library. After more than fifty years of serving the public, the library consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to become what we now recognize as the New York Public Library.

But what was to become of this architectural marvel? Enter the up-and-coming organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

HIAS hired architect Benjamin Levitan to oversee the necessary alterations to create a suitable New York City headquarters. He was very impressed by the building’s original grand structure, including its southerly double-height spaces, elaborate iron and wood book stacks, columns, skylights, and vaulted ceilings—but knew that the building had to become more than just a place for well-designed silent reflection. Levitan and HIAS wanted to create a place that was welcoming, yet able to provide newly-arrived Jewish immigrants the aid, emergency shelter, and sanctuary for religious practice, they sought and deserved as they began their new lives in New York.

After the final structural reconstruction efforts were finished, a community bazaar was held to furnish the building, it was dedicated by President Warren G. Harding on June 5, 1920. This new HIAS location provided ample space for both the organization’s Executive headquarters and facilities to ease immigrants into many aspects of American life.

The building’s features and services included:

  • Separate dormitories for men and women
  • Two kosher kitchens—one for meat preparation and one for dairy
  • A large dining room for comfortable, communal, social eating
  • An operating synagogue, both for those living within HIAS’ walls and neighborhood residents
  • Holiday celebrations, such as a yearly neighborhood Passover Seder
  • Facilities for children, including donated toys and games, classrooms, and a playground

In addition to providing personal shelter and community interaction, 425 Lafayette Street also became ‘base camp’ for various HIAS-sponsored immigration and community services:

HIAS Immigrant Bank
The bank, which was licensed by NY State, was established in 1923 and limited itself to the receiving and transmitting of money to/from immigrants’ families abroad. For many years, no other U.S. banks would send dollars abroad.

Citizenship Services
The HIAS offices were open every Sunday in order to accommodate those who were not able to apply for citizenship applications during the week. HIAS office staff also prepared Affidavits of Support and led citizenship classes for clients during these extra weekend hours.

Ellis Island Services
HIAS set up satellite offices at Ellis Island in order to offer personal and immediate aid to those arriving in New York, those who were in danger of being deported back home, and those requiring other forms of legal aid. 

In honor of HIAS’ work and how they turned one building into a place of hope for thousands of Jewish migrants, a plaque is affixed to the outside of 425 Lafayette Street (what now is the Public Theater). It reads:

HIAS plaque outside 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY.

This plaque is dedicated to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which occupied this building from 1921 to 1965. 

As the International Migration Agency of the American Jewish Community, HIAS’ work, providing rescue and refuge for endangered and persecuted people of all faiths and backgrounds around the world, continues to this day. Founded in 1881, HIAS has rescued more than 4,500,000 men, women, and children, including members of almost every Jewish family in America. Tens of thousands of these refugees and migrants were sheltered and fed in this building before they entered the mainstream of life in this great nation. 

HIAS’ current New York City offices are located at 411 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.

Secretary’s Handbook, 1960

In June 1960, the HIAS Office of the Comptroller issued a handbook for the many secretaries working at HIAS. In the days before copy machines, and computers on every desk, there were many secretaries – working for  professional staff, other departmental staff, and in a secretarial pool – all typing letters, telegrams and cables, transcribing recorded correspondence from a Dictaphone, updating lists, adding to and sending case records, and, according to the Introduction, facing “special problems”, which were to be discussed with the Office Manager.

Secretary’s Handbook – Cover, June 1960

The copy above, found in a box of unrelated documents that had been pulled from their respective series and not refiled, belonged to Lorraine Stein (note her name handwritten on the cover). According to the dates we’ve compiled for HIAS staff in the second half of the 20th century, Lorraine Stein was the Executive Secretary to Executive Vice-President James Rice as early as 1964, and 30 years later was the Executive Coordinator – responsible for the efficient running of the Executive Office.

It is likely that secretaries were continually being hired and trained as others moved on from HIAS. The handbook was created primarily for these new employees, making training easier and quicker. The Introduction explains,

The primary purpose of this Handbook is to achieve uniformity throughout the Agency and to summarize for you what is considered good office practice in United HIAS Service.

And it goes on to say,

… this Handbook was prepared with the NEW employee in mind.

The handbook is 57 pages long, including an Introduction, Table of Contents and Index. Even so, the Introduction explains,

This Handbook does not pretend to cover all areas of a secretary’s duties. There are a number of other reference books which you may wish to consult, some of which are listed in the Bibliography section …

58 years later, the handbook serves another purpose; it provides a detailed description of the departments within the building, a snapshot of HIAS in 1960. And it explains things like the difference between a telegram and a cable (in “Take a Wire” on page 39):

“Take a Wire”

Under “File This Copy” beginning on page 41, there is information about how and why the documents that are becoming part of the HIAS archives were indexed and filed as they were.

“File This Copy”

For several decades beyond the 1960s, we have found the indexing on many of the documents most helpful in tracking subject headings and terminology HIAS used as it evolved. The secretarial presence lasted through the early 1980s, when, as happened in offices everywhere as more systems were automated, the large support staff that had kept the files in perfect order became smaller and the filing system broke down. Our challenge in processing the more recent parts of the collection – late 1980s through the 2000s – is to try to recreate how the files were arranged and housed in filing cabinets, and to maintain that order within the archives.

A copy of the handbook can be found in Box 0048 – in the Executive series, the files of Harry M. Friedman, whose department issued the handbook. Friedman was the Comptroller, Financial Vice-President and Assistant Secretary (to the Board of Directors) from before 1960 until his retirement in 1981.

HIAS helps rescue David Ben-Gurion from Ellis Island, 1940

I spent a few minutes this week looking for information on the Jewish community in Bogota, Colombia in the 1950s for friends whose family migrated from Poland to Paris to Bogota to New York before, during and after WWII. The earliest groups of files in the HIAS collection include some of the surviving files of Dr. Henry Shoskes. Dr. Shoskes was based at the New York office of HIAS in the 1940s and 1950s, but spent months at a time traveling between overseas offices of HIAS. Previous posts on Dr. Shoskes can be found here:

Dr. Henry Shoskes in Latin America, 1947

The Jewish Problem and the Catholic Point of View, Quito, 1946

Your Representatives Just Disappeared from Sao Paolo

When in Shoskes’ folder titled, “Latin America – Memoranda and Reports, 1947-1956”, searching for information on Bogota, a 2-page memorandum caught my attention.

Dated May 9, 1951, the memorandum is from Bernard Kornblith, Supervisor, Pier Service Department, to Dr. Henry Shoskes, HIAS Overseas Representative. The subject is: “Ben Gurion’s arrival in the United States in 1940”. There is no context about why Kornblith chose this moment in 1951 to write to Shoskes about this episode from 11 years earlier. The copy in the file is a carbon copy, which you can see in the lack of crispness in the text.

Note that the ship Ben-Gurion arrived on was the S.S. Scythia – misspelled  in the memo – which itself has an interesting history. Below is the memorandum:

David Ben Gurion’s Arrival in the United States, page 1
Kornblith memo, page 2

Kornblith must have repeated this story many times; a very similar retelling  appears in a new book by Rick Richman, and in his article in Mosaic magazine (January 2018).

It may seem that Kornblith’s responsibilities as the supervisor of HIAS’ pier services on Ellis Island, while offering much-needed assistance to immigrants, most days involved routine paperwork. How surprising therefore, on a Rosh Hashanah morning, to find himself pulling Rabbi Stephen Wise out of High Holiday services. Through Wise’s intervention, the future first prime minister of Israel avoided an uncomfortable couple of days and nights on Ellis Island.

I hope Kornblith was aware of the thousands of new immigrants he helped ease into new lives in the United States in the decades he worked for HIAS, down at the piers.

David Ben-Gurion on another pre-state visit to New York. Most likely seeking funding, he is pictured here with Hadassah leaders Rose Halprin (left) and Etta Rosensohn, 1946



Wilhelm Weinberg Collection Rededicated, 1989

In a previous post we wrote about the dedication of the Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records at the HIAS headquarters on Lafayette Street, in December 1958.

A press release from 1989, found in Executive Vice-President Karl Zukerman’s files during a survey of files from the 1980s before they were processed, indicates that HIAS sought in 1989 to make amends with Wilhelm Weinberg’s family for having dismantled the Hall of Records when HIAS moved to new headquarters on Park Avenue in 1965.

Rededication of Wilhelm Weinberg Collection, now at YIVO, 1989

YIVO received many of the HIAS files in 1965 when HIAS moved to a new office without room for the voluminous administrative and client files they had accumulated over 40 years on Lafayette Street.

If you read the letter from Ilja Dijour (in the link at the beginning of this post) to James P. Rice written soon after the 1958 dedication, it is clear that in fact the “meticulous evaluation and cataloguing [sic] of records” described in 1989 had been a problem since long before 1958. In fact, according to the excerpt from the 1918 survey (in the same link to the earlier post), even in 1918 the files were disorganized and difficult to access when needed.

Many of the HIAS files that were sent to YIVO throughout the 20th century, including many World War II-era case files, have been microfilmed and cataloged or listed. The files that form the HIAS collection at AJHS will be arranged and accessible at the end of 2018.

We have created a database to many of the post-World War II case files, which will indicate whether a file exists; because of privacy issues physical access to the files depends on parameters set by HIAS. The many thousands of case files that remain physically with HIAS are in need of weeding, rearranging and eventually digitization to create easier access, and HIAS is well aware of the importance of their continuing stewardship of this valuable family history.

It’s a costly project, and after all, records management is not specifically part of the HIAS mission. It is of course not a part of any not-for-profit’s mission. Records that are not legally or fiscally required to be retained become a huge financial burden. We hope in the near future it will be possible to further organize and make accessible the remaining HIAS files, allowing for privacy restrictions as necessary.

And then the challenge is the long-term preservation of their electronic records – something we all have to think about, professionally and personally … but not today.