By Stacey Dresner
Robert Fishman drove by the B’nai Tikvah Sholom synagogue in Bloomfield recently and saw a big sign from HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that read, “Our people were refugees too.”
“I believe in the HIAS statement,” Fishman said. “Our people were refugees and it is a passion of mine to make sure that refugees are seen in a positive light and as a benefit to our country, and in our state that is borne out.”
Fishman will now use that passion as executive director of the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition (CIRC), a network of community agencies, religious groups, legal service providers and immigrant rights activists advocating for the rights and welfare of refugee and immigrant communities in Connecticut.
For years, as the executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), Fishman oversaw state and federal public policy advocacy on behalf of all of Connecticut’s Jewish agencies. He also worked on behalf of immigrants and refugees as part of JFACT and as volunteer president of CIRC, which had been a volunteer-led organization since it was founded in 1986.
Now CIRC is set to become a professionally-staffed organization, with Fishman at its helm.
One of the first things CIRC will do under Fishman’s professional leadership is to co-sponsor an Oct. 3 vigil at the Charter Oak Cultural Center to protect the rights of “Dreamers” and DACA “and to send a message of welcoming for all refugees and immigrants in Connecticut,” Fishman said.
The non-profit CIRC has a number of member agencies, each of which is a State Department-designated refugee service agency. These agencies include the Connecticut Mutual Assistance Association in Hartford, which works with southeast Asian populations and as well as others who have been in the U.S. for over six months; Catholic Charities’ division for refugees in Hartford, which has brought refugees into the area in large numbers for many years; and the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants in Bridgeport, a non-profit international legal services and refugee agency established in 1918. Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford (JFS), which assisted with the resettlement of Russian Jews through HIAS in the late 1980s and has a long history of aiding immigrants and refugees, is also a member of CIRC, as is JFACT.
“We are making sure that between JFS and JFACT, that the Jews still have a seat at the table,” Fishman explained.
In addition, CIRC counts as its members the West Indian, Polish, Pakistani and Indian immigrant communities, as well as the Hartford Public Library, which serves a number of immigrants with special citizenship and educational services.
“The purpose of CIRC is to be the network for all of these different agencies and to do the advocacy work on their behalf,” Fishman said. “For instance, over the years, it was CIRC who worked with the state legislature to get in-state tuition for the ‘Dreamers,’ and we will continue that.
“One of the reasons to become more of a professionally-staffed agency is that immigrant rights are never automatically protected,” Fishman added. “What we have achieved could be rolled back in the environment that we are living in. So what we want to do is make sure that we protect the rights for immigrants, refugees and the ‘Dreamers’ and promote education… There is this misconception about what is a refugee, what is an immigrant, about ‘illegal immigrants’ who overstay their visas – so there are a lot of things the coalition feels it can communicate being on a professional level.”
CIRC was originally founded in 1986 when the U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans, initiated a welfare reform act in which the Federation government would no longer pay welfare benefits to legal immigrants but would leave it up to each state whether to pay these benefits.
“We needed an effort in Connecticut to make sure that, specifically in our case, legal elderly immigrants were not going to lose benefits that they had been receiving. This included a number of our elderly Russians who had not yet become citizens but were in the process,” Fishman explained.
The volunteers who would eventually become the members of CIRC were one group that worked on the federal level to have the time extended for immigrants to get their citizenship; on the state level they worked to make sure Connecticut would fund welfare benefits for legal immigrants in the state.
The act was eventually signed by President Bill Clinton, but through the efforts of members of CIRC and other agencies, immigrants did receive the citizenship extension and Connecticut became one of the states that opted to continue welfare benefits for legal immigrants.
“It was controversial, but our feeling was that all immigrants had to be treated equally,” Fishman said. “We really worked together as a united front. And that led us to work on other issues including the in-state tuition for the ‘Dreamers’ in Connecticut. But that took a lot of time; it didn’t happen until Malloy became governor.”
Chris George, former vice president of CIRC, will now serve as the organization’s president, a volunteer position. George is the executive director of IRIS, the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven. Megan Clark Torrey, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Connecticut, will serve as vice president.
The agency will be seeking necessary funding from local foundations and individuals, ”who understand the importance of supporting refugees and immigrants,” Fishman said.
“It’s a social justice issue. There are well over 20 million refugees around the world. And we can alleviate suffering and persecution by admitting refugees to our country and Connecticut and giving them a little start-up support so they and their children can have the American Dream.”