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Plan to Cut Soviet Jewish Emigration May Face Stiff Opposition in Congress

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The Bush administration’s reported plan to sharply limit the number of Soviet Jews permitted to enter the United States as refugees may face strong resistance in Congress, though American Jewish groups are not likely to fight it.

“Disgusting and shameful” were the words one congressman used to describe the plan, which was first disclosed Sunday in The New York Times.

“I don’t think the Bush administration is correctly sensing the mood in Congress,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Monday.

Engel predicted “grave resistance” in Congress if the administration decides to grant refugee status to only those Soviet Jews who have immediate relatives here. They comprise about 35 percent of Soviet Jewish emigrants applying to enter the United States as refugees.

This year, the United States increased its refugee quota and budget to allow 43,500 Soviets, mostly Jews, to immigrate to this country.

The Bush administration will be consulting with Congress later this month to set its refugee ceiling for the 1990 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. It is expected to be around 50,000.

The Bush administration in January announced that it was reviewing its refugee policy. Jewish groups, including the Council of Jewish Federations, have been consulted in the process.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler confirmed Monday that the Bush administration is reviewing Soviet emigration policy, but she said, “We are not prepared to announce any policy decisions at this time.”

‘SHOULD BE WELCOMED WITH OPEN ARMS’

Engel, who returned to the United States on Sunday after visiting the U.S. refugee processing center for Soviet refugees in Rome, called the Bush administration “hypocrites.”

“They talk about people not being admitted unless they have family members here. And the policy of the United States government in recent months has been to separate families,” he said.

He was referring to decisions by U.S. immigration officials to grant refugee status to some members of Soviet Jewish families and not to others.

“This country said to the Soviet Union, ‘Let the Soviet Jews go and we’ll take them in,’ “he said. Now, “the minute they liberalize their policy, we are throwing roadblocks in their path.”

Engel’s four grandparents emigrated to the United States from Russia. Today, “a lot of these people are no different and should be welcomed with open arms,” he said.

“I would be happier if more chose to go to Israel, but I still believe they have the right to choose where they go to,” he said.

Despite pressure on Congress and the administration to limit government spending, Engel said that hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens entering the United States are “somehow absorbed in society.”

To argue that the government cannot allow 100,000 Soviet Jews to enter the United States “does not make any sense to me whatsoever,” he said.

But Mark Talisman, Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations, said Jewish groups realize there is no way the United States will be able to admit all of those expected emigres.

REFUSAL RATE STILL HIGH

Nevertheless, there is consensus among Jewish groups that any new U.S. restriction on Soviet Jews seeking to enter the United States “could not go the extent of breaking up families,” he said.

Lawmakers such as Engel are expected to lobby harder for additional refugee spots than Jewish groups, which are also mindful of demands from nationals of other countries, such as Southeast Asians, to enter the United States.

Talisman said there was “no cabal here” among U.S. Jewish relief agencies and community federations to see additional Soviet Jewish refugees settle in other countries because of growing financial burdens.

He explained that “money is going to be raised in any event,” should the refugees settle in growing numbers in Israel.

He said that “Israel’s own infrastructure is at a breaking point already.” to handle any growth in Soviet emigration. Housing in Israel needs to be bolstered, because it “does not exist in sufficient quantity,” he said.

Talisman said that at present, the “real problem” in U.S. refugee policy is that in August, 22 percent of Soviet Jewish families in Rome seeking U.S. refugee status were refused it. That rate is “unacceptable and still, in our view, capricious,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the White House convened a meeting to discuss Soviet refugee policy, attended by senior State Department, Justice Department and National Security Council officials.

Congressional hearings to discuss U.S. refugee policy have been scheduled Sept. 12 and Sept. 14 by the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law.

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