WASHINGTON (Mar. 22)
Representatives of four Jewish groups met Tuesday with Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Alan Nelson to protest a sharp increase this month in the number of Soviet Jews being denied permission to enter the United States as refugees.
The groups said the rate of refusal had jumped to 40.5 percent in the first 14 days of March.
At the same time, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the principal group involved in assisting Soviet Jews to enter the United States, welcomed Secretary of State James Baker’s statement Tuesday that the Bush administration will seek to increase its Soviet refugee quota this fiscal year from 19,000 to 43,500.
Baker included the number in written testimony before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on International Operations.
“It’s probably about enough for what we anticipate in the flow this year” of Soviet Jews to the United States, Karl Zukerman, HIAS executive vice president, said Wednesday.
HIAS estimates that about 30,000 Soviet Jews will want to enter the United States this fiscal year, most of them as refugees.
Refugee status is accorded potential immigrants who can prove “a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Prior to last September, the U.S. government tended to agree with HIAS that Soviet Jews as a class inherently face such fear. Since then, INS officials have been more selective, denying refugee status to hundreds of Soviet Jews.
HIAS wants the INS to give Soviet Jews a “presumption of eligibility” for refugee status. Zukerman said Nelson was told, “We could understand (denials) as long as you explained in those denials why those cases were different from the ones you were approving.”
UP FROM 15.9 PERCENT
Nelson agreed with the Jewish delegation’s assertion that it is not in the U.S. interest to appear to be arbitrarily denying refugee status, Zukerman said.
Jerry Ficklin, an INS spokesman, had no comment Wednesday on the meeting.
HIAS figures show that 40.5 percent of the 918 Soviet Jewish families considered for U.S. refugee status between March 1 and 14 were not granted that status.
By contrast, 15.9 percent of the 1,613 families who applied in January and February were denied refugee status. And according to HIAS, the denial rate from Sept. 14 to the end of 1988 averaged 6.7 percent.
A total of 742 families were denied refugee status in the six-month period from Sept. 14 through March 14. Following appeals, INS sustained 49 of the denials and overturned 55, according to HIAS records.
Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS, said there was no resolution of the issue at the meeting with Nelson. The Jewish groups argued that the denial rate for Jews seemed to be linked to the denial rate for other ethnic and religious groups, such as Soviet Pentacostals.
Nelson responded that INS had no quotas for denials, Zukerman said, adding that the INS commissioner was “unpleasantly surprised” with news of the high rate.
HIAS believes the United States began denying refugee status to Soviet Jews because of budgetary contraints, Zukerman said. But Zukerman would not attribute the current rise in the denial rate to continuing U.S. budgetary problems.
Also present at the meeting with Nelson were Ben Zion Leuchter, president of HIAS; Mark Talisman, Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations; David Harris, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee; and Mark Levin, Washington representative of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
24,500 MORE SOVIET REFUGEES
The same delegation met with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on Jan. 25 to complain about the refugee status denials.
On Feb. 10, HIAS submitted a 100-page brief to Thornburgh arguing that INS “is misapplying the appropriate standard in its determinations of the refugee status of Soviet Jews.”
The Bush administration’s proposal that Congress raise the ceiling on refugees will include a request for a $100 million supplemental aid package. Of this amount, $85 million would be used to admit 28,500 additional refugees, 24,500 of whom would be from the Soviet Union, Secretary Baker said.
The other 4,000 slots would be used to bring refugees to the United States from Southeast Asia and the Near East. That would help compensate for the State Department’s Jan. 11 decision to transfer refugee slots from those regions to Soviet refugees.
The other $15 million would be used for U.N. international assistance programs in Africa ($11.5 million) and Southeast Asia ($3.5 million), said Sheppy Abramowitz, the State Department’s spokeswoman on refugee affairs.
The Jan. 11 move was one of the first in a series of State Department initiatives to deal with the unexpectedly large flow of refugees from the Soviet Union in the current fiscal year, which began Oct.1.
HIAS estimates that by April 20, roughly 14,500 Soviet Jews will have entered the United States this fiscal year, using all the available slots. It predicts that an additional 15,500 slots are needed for Soviet Jews this fiscal year, which expires Sept. 30.
SEVERAL CONGRESSIONAL PLANS
In addition to the various administration proposals, a number of lawmakers have come up with plans of their own for resolving the refugee influx problem.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) introduced a bill Feb. 28 that would increase U.S. refugee slots for Soviets by 25,000.
Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Kasten (R-Wis.) introduced one March 1 that would also create 25,000 new Soviet slots.
On Wednesday, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would create 19,000 new slots, with 2,000 more to be apportioned among various Warsaw Pact countries, including the Soviet Union.
HIAS, CJF, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish War Veterans of America have endorsed the Berman plan. “But that does not mean we oppose others,” Zukerman said.