WASHINGTON (May. 16)
The Bush administration is expected to announce Wednesday that it will raise the refugee quota to allow 19,000 additional Soviet emigrants to enter the United States in the next four months, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned.
This would raise the refugee quota for this fiscal year to 43,500, meeting the anticipated flow of as many as 40,000 Soviet Jews to the United States this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The overwhelming number of Soviet refugees are Jews.
According to a Justice Department source, Congress will be officially informed of the move Wednesday, when Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is scheduled to meet with the chairmen and ranking Republicans of the House and Senate Judiciary subcommittees on immigration.
The quota for Southeast Asian refugees is also being increased to offset a transfer earlier this year of “refugee slots” from that region to the Soviet Union, one source said.
The Refugee Act of 1980 requires the executive branch to notify Congress before increasing the refugee ceiling.
Sources said Thornburgh and Secretary of State James Baker, who are required under the refugee act to consult with Congress, decided two weeks ago that rather than waiting for both to be in town at the same time, Thornburgh would do the consulting himself.
WILL REACH QUOTA IN TWO WEEKS
The planned consultation comes as Congress is considering a supplemental appropriations bill that would increase the State Department funds for Soviet refugees this year by $85 million.
The United States is expected to reach its existing quota on refugees from the Soviet Union in two weeks.
If the quota is not raised before then, some 10,000 Soviet Jews currently waiting in Rome for permission to enter the United States would be stranded there indefinitely, said Mark Talisman, Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations.
But the additional refugee slots cannot be used unless Congress approves new funds to cover both the State Department’s and Health and Human Services Department’s share of the costs of processing, transporting and resettling the immigrants.
An estimated $75 million in State Department funds and $22 million in HHS funds will be needed to process the additional 19,000 Soviet refugees.
Much of the $75 million in State Department funds would go to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for refugee processing and transportation.
The additional funds are being introduced in Congress as amendments to a multibillion-dollar supplemental appropriations bill.
The bill, which faced widespread opposition because of its size, has been pared considerably, and the House may vote on it as early as Wednesday, Talisman said. The bill would then have to pass the Senate.
Meanwhile, Jewish groups are already beginning to lobby for sufficient slots and funds for the 1990 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
BILLS PENDING IN CONGRESS
Talisman said the 43,500 Soviet slots will be enough next year, despite anticipated increases in Soviet emigration, because “there is going to be larger numbers going to Israel.”
He based this estimate on the “positive impact” of a program that has allowed thousands of Soviet Jews to visit Israel on tourist visas.
A Justice Department source disputed Talisman’s prediction, pointing out that the percentage of Soviet Jews opting for Israel over the United States has remained constant at around 10 to 11 percent.
The source said the administration will likely propose at least 43,500 Soviet refugee slots next year, although no decision has been made yet.
The administration has been reviewing U.S. refugee policy at President Bush’s request and may propose changes sometime this summer, the source said.
Meanwhile, several bills attempting to address the refugee backlog are pending in Congress.
In the House, Rep, Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), is sponsoring a bill that would give Vietnamese, Soviet Jews and Pentacostals presumption of eligibility for refugee status for the 1990 fiscal year. It has been approved by a subcommittee and is awaiting consideration by the full House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the Senate, an identical bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) may be voted on Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an aide to the senator said.
FEWER REJECTIONS REPORTED
The bills would reduce the discretion that adjudicators of the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service now have in deciding whether to grant refugee status to Soviet Jews, Talisman said.
Currently, Soviet Jews have to prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” to qualify for refugee status.
Under the Morrison and Lautenberg bills, the burden of proof would shift to INS officials to explain why a particular Soviet Jew was not granted refugee status.
Prior to last fall, Soviet Jews wishing to enter the United States were automatically given refugee status.
But close to 2,000 have been denied refugee status since Sept. 14, a month after then Attorney General Edwin Meese ordered the INS to use a “more equitable and legally appropriate application of existing U.S. refugee law worldwide.”
The rejection rate reached an all-time high in March, when HIAS reported that 36.5 percent of Soviet Jews applying for refugee status were denied.
The figure was down to 27.9 percent in April, according to HIAS figures, and was 19.2 percent for the first 11 days of May, according to Talisman.
He attributed the decrease to the free legal assistance provided recently to Soviet Jews in Rome by Jewish lawyers visiting from the United States.