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Halt in Issuing Visas in Moscow May Be Tragic, Say Jewish Groups

Calling the move “potentially tragic,” three American Jewish groups active in Soviet Jewish emigration reacted with surprise and dismay Friday to the decision by the American Embassy in Moscow to temporarily stop issuing refugee visas to Soviet citizens.

The three groups — the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, HIAS and the Council of Jewish Federations — issued a strongly worded joint statement that said the suspension must stop at once.

“The U.S. government must immediately find the funds to reinstate the activities of its Moscow Embassy,” the statement read. “This can be done either by a transfer of unused funds from other sources, or by a supplemental appropriation by Congress.”

Phil Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said Friday that between 150 and 180 Soviet Jews will be affected by the short-term policy, which went into effect Monday and will last until Sept. 30, the end of the 1988 fiscal year.

Those affected, he said, are already in the “pipeline,” having made their requests for U.S. invitations.

Saperia said it is difficult to pinpoint how many it will impact in the future, since “we don’t know in advance how many people will go to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.”

The majority of Soviet Jews, Saperia said, will not be affected by the visa stoppage, since those who enter the United States each year are processed in Rome, not in the Soviet Union.

Those emigrants use Israeli visas to leave the Soviet Union, and then change course in Vienna.

150 USED U.S. VISAS THIS YEAR

Saperia said that of the 3,630 Soviet Jews who entered the United States in 1987 with assistance from HIAS, 84 of them left the Soviet Union on U.S. letters of invitation.

About 150 Jews have left the Soviet Union on U.S. invitations so far this year. In 1986, 28 Soviet Jews left on U.S. letters of invitation, Saperia said.

HIAS assists virtually all Soviet Jews entering this country.

The joint statement issued Friday said that the U.S. position on human rights and Soviet emigration “has been inspirational to people who yearn for freedom throughout the world,” and that the U.S. government must therefore “not do anything which could compromise this position, even as a temporary measure.”

The statement was issued after leaders of the three groups met in New York on Friday morning to discuss the new development. Participants in the meeting included Myrna Shinbaum, acting executive director of NCSJ: Ben Zion Leuchter, president of HIAS; and Carmi Schwartz, executive vice president of CJF.

The new State Department visa policy stems from a surge in requests by Soviet citizens, primarily Armenians.

At the State Department Friday, spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow could no longer meet the demand for letters of invitation. She said that under a budget agreement with Congress, the department could not ask for additional funds for the program this fiscal year.

UPSURGE IN REFUGEES

Congress had allocated $119.5 million to the State Department this fiscal year to help bring refugees worldwide to the United States.

“The United States government (is) sympathetic to the families who have been affected by this delay in refugee processing at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow,” Oakley said.

This fiscal year, the State Department had planned to issue invitations to about 68,500 refugees worldwide, Oakley said. But that number was increased to 83,500, because of the surge in applications from Soviet refugees, particularly Armenians.

About 9,500 Soviet refugees were invited this fiscal year, which Oakley noted was “substantially larger” than the 1,800 Soviet refugees receiving U.S. letters of invitation in 1987.

(JTA reporter Yitzhak Rabi in New York contributed to this story.)

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