Moves to Reduce Refugee Backlog Get Mixed Review from Agencies
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Moves to Reduce Refugee Backlog Get Mixed Review from Agencies

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Soviet Jewry and refugee resettlement agencies have given mixed reviews to the latest moves by the U.S. State and Justice departments to ease a backlog of Soviet Jewish refugee applicants in Moscow and Rome.

Among other actions described in a Dec. 15 memo, the State Department said it would “frontload” the number of Soviet refugee slots available for the entire fiscal year 1989, making all of those slots — as many as 14,000 — open immediately.

Each year, Congress sets a region-by-region quota on the number of immigrants to be allowed to enter the United States as refugees. Ordinarily, an entire fiscal year’s quota of regional refugee admissions is distributed in quarterly installments.

The need for such extraordinary measures as front-loading stems from the influx of Soviet Jews and other minorities permitted to emigrate this year.

Since January, some 15,640 Jews have been permitted to leave, nearly double last year’s total and more than 15 times the number allowed out the year before.

The number of refugee slots allocated by Congress did not keep pace. As a result, U.S. immigration officials in Rome have denied refugee status to as many as 179 Soviet Jewish emigres since September. And hundreds more applications are pending.

Jewish organizations have called the denials a betrayal of U.S. human rights guarantees to Soviet Jews.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations all welcomed the front-loading procedure. CJF said in a statement that the move “will help relieve pressures enormously.”


But Karl Zukerman, executive vice president of HIAS, was less enthusiastic about the government’s statement that it would also consult with Congress about reallocating to the Soviet refugee sphere 3,000 unused slots currently reserved for Vietnamese political refugees.

The slots are open because Vietnamese officials have yet to follow through on the promised release of thousands detained in so-called “re-education camps.”

“While we appreciate the increase, it is a mistake to take it from other regions,” said Zukerman.

The chairman of an umbrella group of refugee agencies also objected to the reallocation process.

“It’s too bad there has to be this kind of jostling from one region to another,” commented Dr. Donald Larsen, executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and chairman of the Committee on Migration and Refugee Affairs.

Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils, said that he understands the concern of HIAS and others that the Vietnamese are being “traded off” for Soviets.

“However, it is my impression that we’re not trading them off, but borrowing,” he said. “There is an assumption among all of us that when Congress returns in January, they’ll straighten it out.”

The State Department is among those counting on Congress to solve the refugee problem. The State Department memo also listed department plans to draft legislation that will establish a new category of immigrant.

Currently, those being denied refugee status may enter the country as “public interest parolees,” as Attorney General Richard Thornburgh has been assuring Soviet Jewry groups.

However, parolees, unlike refugees or even regular immigrants, face major obstacles in trying to become U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens.

Jewish organizations are also hoping that Congress will resist budget pressures and heavily increase the money available for refugee programs.

The refugee problem is a “whole package,” said Zukerman.

“Each of the little problems is related to the overall money problems. Once there is overall understanding of what the government is going to come up with, all of the rest (of the problems) are practicalities.”

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