Senate Bill on Refugee Status is Weaker Than House Version

Jewish groups have expressed approval, if not total satisfaction, with the Senate’s adoption Thursday of a measure that would make it easier for Soviet Jews to enter the United States as refugees.

The provision was adopted by a voted of 97-0 as an amendment to a bill authorizing funds for the State Department. The bill was a compromise version of legislation introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Jewish groups were hoping that the Senate would follow the House in voting to end a requirement that Soviet emigres seeking to enter the United States as refugees demonstrate that they face a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their native country. The House approved such language July 13 by a 358-44 vote. Its bill would virtually assure that all Soviet Jews seeking to enter the United States could do so as refugees.

But Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), respectively chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary sub-committee on immigration and refugee affairs, opposed such a presumption, which was contained in the original Lautenberg bill.

The Senate compromise states that Soviet Jews, Soviet Evangelical Christians and Indo-Chinese are members of groups that have faced “a well-established history of persecution.”

They may qualify for refugee status, the bill states, by demonstrating that they lost their home, job or educational opportunities when denied permission to emigrate, or have faced “prejudicial acts” because of their religious beliefs, such as “averse treatment in the work place.”

Soviet Jews may also qualify for refugee status if they knew of “acts of persecution” against other Jews.

‘BEST THAT WE COULD GET’

“We did not think (the Senate compromise) was perfect,” said Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which resettles Jewish refugees world-wide. “We did think that it was the best that we could get at the moment.”

It is now up to a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences between the two bills. Both the House and Senate must then vote again on identical legislation before it goes to President Bush for signature.

In the meantime, thousands of Soviet Jewish emigrants are stranded in Italian transit communities awaiting permission from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to enter the United States.

Refugee status entitles immigrants to U.S. government funds for transportation and resettlement, if funds are available. Between Sept. I and June 30, the INS refused refugee status to 18.6 percent of Soviet Jewish families that applied for it, about 4.000 people.

But even if the House and Senate agree to give Soviet Jews a presumption of eligibility for refugee status, backlogs in refugee processing could still occur. That happened this year when the U.S. refugee quota for the Soviet Union was not high enough to meet the crush of refugees seeking to enter this country.

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