United States Now Denying Refuge to Hundreds of Jews Leaving USSR
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United States Now Denying Refuge to Hundreds of Jews Leaving USSR

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For the first time, American immigration officials are challenging the refugee status of Soviet Jewish emigres, with the result that hundreds of them may not be allowed to come to the United States.

According to various Jewish organizations, the challenges are occurring in Rome, usually the next-to-last stop for Soviet Jews intent on coming to the United States. There, 179 Soviet Jews have been denied refugee visas since September, according to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

In addition, more than 300 “delayniks” are said to be in limbo in Rome, awaiting a decision by immigration officials that was once automatic for Soviet Jews. From January through Nov. 29, 12,794 Soviet Jews were processed by HIAS officials in Rome.

Soviet Jewry activists, American Jewish resettlement agencies and Soviet Jews themselves are claiming the new policy contradicts the reality of Jewish life in the Soviet Union and reneges on years of official promises to Jews there.

Furthermore, they fear losing government subsidies to refugees that defray the mounting costs of resettlement.

The State Department denies there is a new policy. But both State and Justice department spokespersons confirmed on Friday that refugee visas had been denied to those Soviet Jews who were unable to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country.

Last week, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews distributed a petition signed by 60 Soviet Jewish families in Italy who were told they could not enter the United States as refugees.


“What is the difference between us and others who have fled their countries under dictatorship governments to save their lives from persecution?” they asked.

In a second petition released by UCSJ, 345 Soviet Jewish families appealed to the U.S. government and public to reverse the recent policy.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said Friday that while there are Soviet Jews who have not qualified for refugee status, there is “no change in U.S. policy.”

According to the Refugee Act of 1980, the State Department provides the Immigration and Naturalization Service with guidance on the political situation of a country’s citizens.

Both State and Justice officials said that those denied refugee visas could enter the United States as public interest “parolees.” Parolees must show an affidavit of support from a sponsor in the United States saying that the applicant will not be a liability on the public welfare system.

“Jews have at least been given the color of presumption of having been persecuted by definition,” said Philip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS. “All of a sudden, cases accepted over the years are being denied.”

“The recent INS policy of quizzing every Soviet Jew to prove a history of persecution — and denying some Jews refugee status on that basis — repudiates everything our country has stood for since Helsinki,” said Pamela Cohen, national president of the UCSJ.

The State Department each year sets a ceiling on the number of refugee visas available worldwide. This year, the quota is 94,000, of which only 84,000 slots are fully funded.

Only 16,000 of those slots have been set aside for all Soviet refugees: Jews, Armenians, Pentecostal Christians and ethnic Germans.


By September, the number of Soviet citizens seeking refuge in the United States had already surpassed 16,000. The process of screening refugee applications began that month, according to Saperia of HIAS.

The State Department also announced, early last month, that because the refugee budget had been drained, the processing of further Soviet Jewish applications would have to wait until the beginning of January.

While Jewish organizations have welcomed the easing of restrictions on Soviet Jewish emigration, resettling refugees represents a formidable financial challenge.

Last year, Jewish communities around the country spent an estimated $14 million on resettling Soviet emigres. This year, when Jews have been leaving the Soviet Union at a rate of 1,500 a month, they are expected to spend $66 million.

Officials of HIAS, the Council of Jewish Federations, the American Jewish Committee and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry are seeking a meeting with Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to discuss their concerns.

The organizations are also hoping that Congress will recommend an increase in the refugee quotas and request additional funding for refugee resettlement.

The greater challenge is the dollars.

When the State Department increased the number of refugee slots by 15,000 last year to accommodate a surge in Armenian emigration from the Soviet Union, it did not request additional funding. As a result, the State Department ran out of cash in July, and hundreds of people, mostly Armenians, were stranded at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The crush was only alleviated with a $20 million emergency allocation, which came out of the next fiscal year’s budget.


Soviet Jewry activists are concerned that U.S. officials are beginning to rethink American refugee policy in light of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” (openness). They fear American officials are becoming dubious that persecution of Jews is still a problem in the USSR.

But activists say recent Soviet promises to legalize the teaching of Hebrew and to establish a Jewish cultural center in Moscow have created only the illusion of liberalization.

“Despite palpable improvements in immigration and the ability to travel back and forth, and some improvements that came with glasnost, the fundamental basis of fear on the part of Jews in the Soviet Union has not changed,” said David Waksberg, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews in San Francisco.

A State Department source said the department is taking a number of actions to ease the caseload in Moscow and Rome, including hiring more officials at those embassies.

JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.

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