U.S. Blames Voluntary Groups for Backlog of Soviet Refugees

The State Department has blamed a backlog in Italy of thousands of Soviet emigrants, mostly Jews, on the failure of voluntary agencies to file the necessary applications for them to enter the United States as refugees.

The applications must be filed before officials of the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service can consider granting refugee status.

The State Department blamed the volunteer groups during a meeting last week with members of Congress.

“Until the groups did their job of preparing the documents, the Immigration Service could not do anything with these people,” Ivan Selin, undersecretary of state for management, told the lawmakers, according to a congressional aide present.

Of the 17,000 Soviets housed in transit centers outside of Rome at the end of July, 11,500 were Jewish, Karl Zukerman, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said last week.

Zukerman said that of the 11,500 Soviet Jews, there were roughly 3,500 for whom HIAS had not yet filed the applications.

They are coming in such large numbers that it takes “about two and a half weeks from the time they arrive in Rome to the time that we get their papers to the INS,” he explained.

Zukerman said HIAS would like to reduce that period to two weeks or less. He added that HIAS is diverting 25 percent of its resources in Rome to appeal denials of refugee status to some emigrants and to assemble thorough documentation to reduce the likelihood that others will be refused.

5,500 HAD NOT FILED APPLICATIONS

Since Sept. 1, close to 20 percent of Soviet Jews seeking refugee status have been refused on the grounds that they could not adequately demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the Soviet Union. Half of those refused are ultimately granted refugee status on appeal.

But that could soon change. The House and Senate have each passed bills making it easier for Soviet Jewish emigrants to gain U.S. refugee status. Conferees are expected to iron out the differences in the two bills in September, after Congress returns from its summer recess.

The backlog problem was discussed at a meeting requested by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the congressional Ad Hoc Task Force on Soviet Refugees.

The group was founded earlier this year by 10 Jewish lawmakers as a response to the problems Soviet Jews had begun to face in acquiring refugee status.

Of the 17,000 Soviet emigrants in transit centers at the end of July, 4,800 had been granted refugee status and were awaiting flights to the United States, Undersecretary Selin said.

Another 4,200 had been refused refugee status, 400 of whom had also been refused on appeal. Some 2,500 were awaiting interviews with INS officials who will decide whether to grant them refugee status.

The remaining 5,500, Selin said, had not completed the necessary application forms.

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