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Soviet Jews May No Longer Be Able to ‘drop Out’ to U.S. Once in Rome

Jews who emigrate from the Soviet Union on Israeli visas may no longer be allowed to come to the United States as refugees, according to a plan reportedly being hammered out by the Bush administration.

Instead, they would have to apply for U.S. refugee status before they leave the Soviet Union. They would then emigrate with U.S. rather than Israeli visas. All those emigrating on Israeli visas would have to go directly to Israel.

That would be a major change in the way Soviet Jews have been emigrating since the mid-1970s.

Currently, the vast majority of Jews who leave the Soviet Union on Israeli visas later “drop out” in Vienna to immigrate elsewhere, mainly the United States. From Vienna, they travel to Rome, where Jewish groups assist them in applying for U.S. refugee status.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a Bush administration plan to deal with the huge influx of Soviet refugees includes a proposal to close the U.S. refugee processing center in Rome and require those applying for refugee status to do so while still in Moscow.

Administration officials could not immediately confirm the Times report Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler would only say that “a number of options for procedural changes are being considered to improve our ability to cope adequately with the recent surge in Soviet immigrants seeking admission to the U.S.”

If the administration goes ahead with the plan, Soviet Jews would be put in a quandary.

FEW EMIGRATE ON U.S. VISAS

Until recently, the Soviet Union only allowed Jews to emigrate on Israeli visas, on the grounds of returning to their homeland or joining families in Israel. In recent years, most have used the Israeli visas as a means of getting to the United States, because there was no other viable alternative.

The Soviet Union has said in recent months that it is now prepared to allow Jews and others to emigrate on American visas. During the first seven months of this year, 265 Soviet Jews were allowed to do so, including 55 in July.

But those numbers are still small, compared to the numbers of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate on Israeli visas. A total of 1,431 Soviet Jews arrived in Vienna on Israeli visas during the first week of September alone.

If the Bush administration proposal goes into effect, Soviet Jews who want to immigrate to the United States would have to choose either to take their chances on getting an American visa or to abandon their plans and settle in Israel.

Israel is expected to welcome the plan, since it believes its visas should not be used by persons not intending to go to Israel, including Jews and thousands of Evangelical Christians in the past year.

The new plan could go into effect as early as Oct. 1, when the 1990 fiscal year begins. But those Soviets who had received permission to leave on Israeli visas before Oct. 1 could still apply for refugee status, the Times quoted administration officials as saying.

Currently, thousands of Soviet Jews are waiting in transit centers outside Rome for permission to enter the United States as refugees.

MEETING WITH U.S. OFFICIALS SET

Representatives of Jewish groups are expected to discuss the new U.S. plan Wednesday with officials of the National Security Council, State Department and Justice Department.

The U.S. officials will meet in New York with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and with members of the so-called Monitoring and Accountability Committee, representing Jewish community federations and Jewish agencies dealing with transmigration and resettlement of refugees.

One of the key concerns of the groups will be the continuing denial of refugee status to some Soviet Jews in Rome and Moscow, according to Mark Talisman, the CJF’s Washington representative.

He said the Jewish groups will ask the administration to abandon the contention that some Jews do not face “a well-founded fear of persecution” in the Soviet Union, which is a condition for receiving refugee status.

The reported procedural change in handling refugees comes at a time when the Bush administration is conferring with Congress about its proposed refugee admissions for the 1990 fiscal year. The administration sent its formal request to Congress this week, which, under the Refugee Act of 1980, must win informal approval of key members of Congress.

The request proposes that the United States admit 50,000 refugees from the Soviet Union in 1990, compared to 43,500 this fiscal year.

But whereas all of the Soviet refugees admitted this year will receive U.S. government funds for transportation, processing and initial resettlement, 10,000 of the 50,000 refugees admitted in the coming year would not qualify for such funding. It would have to be picked up by private groups.

HIAS WON’T SEEK BIGGER NUMBERS

Members of Congress, such as Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law, are scoffing at the administration plan and will likely seek to increase the refugee budget, as they have this fiscal year.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society told Morrison’s subcommittee Tuesday that based on current Soviet exit rates, 72,000 Jews will seek to come to the United States in 1990 as refugees.

Karl Zukerman, HIAS executive vice president, urged the United States to admit 40,000 Soviet Jews in 1990, while saying he was doing so “with full knowledge that 40,000 will admit only some of the likely applicants for U.S. admission.”

“For us, it is a painful recognition that competing global refugee needs and limits on our national capacities require this modest request,” he said. “As American Jews, we are mindful of both our civic and our Jewish duties.”

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