HIAS has been one of the most influential aid organizations for immigrants and refugees since its founding in New York City, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 1881. The organization’s stated principles say that “the right of a refugee is a universal human right” and that “hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia must be expressly prohibited in domestic and international law.” HIAS estimates that it has helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution.

Early History

At least as early as 1870, aid societies assisted Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States. A wave of eastern European Jewish immigration began in 1881, as Russian Jews fled pogroms (organized assaults on minority groups, especially Jews), and continued until the US Congress passed restrictive immigration quota laws in 1921 and 1924. During this period, many organizations, including the aid groups that later would join to form modern-day HIAS, helped these immigrants flee persecution in Europe and settle in America. Some Jewish immigrant aid societies at this time had similar sounding names and worked together. In 1909, the “Hebrew Sheltering House Association” merged with the “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” to form the “Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society.” “Sheltering” would later be dropped from the name; today, the organization is known as “HIAS.”

Before World War I, HIAS focused on aid to Jewish immigrants who had already reached the United States, serving as advocates at Ellis Island, providing economic relief, and helping to find employment. During the war, however, HIAS expanded its reach to assist refugees trapped in both Europe and Asia.

In 1927, HIAS partnered with the Jewish Colonization Association (a British organization) and EmigDirect (a German migration organization) to form “HICEM.” HIAS assisted Jews immigrating to the United States, while the three organizations making up HICEM shared the responsibility for offices in Europe, South and Central America, and Asia. Still, most HICEM staff were HIAS employees. HICEM received the majority of its funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. (EmigDirect withdrew from HICEM in 1934.)

By World War II, both HICEM and HIAS operated worldwide, assisting refugees who were escaping war and pogroms. Immigration law in the United States, however, made no special provisions for refugees seeking persecution; they had to enter the country as immigrants, navigating their way through existing, restrictive US immigration laws.

World War II and the Holocaust

During World War II and the Holocaust, HIAS/HICEM aided refugees from Nazi Germany and areas under Nazi occupation by counseling them on the process of acquiring immigration visas, in some cases providing them with ship tickets to cross the Atlantic. In 1944, one year before the end of the war, HIAS reported that it had helped 250,000 men, women, and children escape Nazi persecution. 

When refugees arrived in the United States, HIAS met their ships at ports of entry and assisted those who were seeking relatives or friends. It also delivered kosher meals to arriving refugees and arranged for rabbinical chaplains to provide spiritual support for immigrants who were detained by the US government. HIAS arranged temporary lodging in hostels, offered classes on American history and citizenship, helped refugees find employment, and assisted them with the bureaucratic requirements to become US citizens.

In response to the increased need for assistance, HIAS’s work expanded and the staff introduced significant new initiatives. For example, in summer 1943, as mass murder of Europe’s Jews continued at a rapid pace, HIAS launched a “Refugee Relative Registration” program. The program helped Americans trying to figure out the fate of relatives abroad, and gave advice on how to sponsor these relatives for postwar immigration to the United States.

The HIAS/HICEM offices in Europe were displaced during World War II. When the war began in 1939, HIAS/HICEM’s European headquarters was in Paris. After Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, the Paris office closed. The staff fled, reopening the office in Lisbon, in neutral Portugal. HICEM moved back to Paris in 1945, after France was liberated from Nazi rule. As the war drew to a close, HIAS/HICEM served Holocaust survivors, focusing especially on searching for missing family members, emigration, and repatriation concerns. In November 1945, HICEM dissolved and HIAS continued working to aid displaced persons in Europe.

After the Holocaust

In the years immediately following the end of World War II and the Holocaust, HIAS resettled more than 150,000 displaced persons in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South America.

After the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, HIAS expanded its reach to assist refugees around the world. In the years since the end of World War II, HIAS has provided aid to Jews from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, and Iran; Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians after the fall of Saigon in 1975; as well as refugees from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Romania, and Tunisia, among others.

HIAS Today

In 2018, HIAS was one of nine agencies contracted by the US State Department to assist refugees. Reflecting on its long history and current mission, HIAS president Mark Hetfield has said:

“We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

With hate crimes and antisemitism in the United States on the rise, HIAS has become a subject of white nationalists’ attention. On October 27, 2018, after posting lies on social media about HIAS’s work on behalf of refugees, a white supremacist murdered 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.