WASHINGTON (Sep. 13)
The Bush administration plans to shift its processing of Soviet refugees from Rome to Moscow “to the maximum extent possible,” a State Department official told Congress on Wednesday.
Princeton Lyman, director of the department’s Bureau for Refugee Programs, made the comment at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing devoted to the administration’s proposed worldwide refugee budget for the 1990 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Lyman’s statement is the clearest official word to date that the administration intends to phase out its facility in Rome for processing Soviet Jews and other refugees who want to immigrate to the United States.
For the last decade, Rome has served as the transit point for Jews who leave the Soviet Union with Israeli visas and decide instead to seek entry to the United States.
Soviet refugees spend weeks in Rome, at U.S. government expense, until their refugee status applications are adjudicated.
CONCERN ABOUT CONFIDENTIALITY
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the principal Jewish group assisting Soviet Jews who want to come to the United States, is expected to tell the House subcommittee Thursday that it would oppose complete closure of the Rome refugee center.
But HIAS is expected to propose transfering most of the U.S. government operations from Rome to Moscow, with the main exception being U.S. officials who adjudicate the refugee status applications.
HIAS estimates that the U.S. government would save $18 million by transferring most of its operations to Moscow, where Soviet applicants for refugee status can continue to live at home, instead of at U.S.-subsidized transit centers in Rome operated by HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The HIAS proposal would still mean that applicants for refugee status would have to be flown to Rome and spend a few weeks there while U.S. officials adjudicate their applications.
HIAS does not have an office in Moscow, where it fears it could not be guaranteed the confidentiality necessary to advise Jewish applicants for refugee status.
Also, it would rather see refugee status applications adjudicated in Rome, because the refusal rate there has been 20 percent in the past year, versus 46 percent for those Jews now applying for refugee status in Moscow.
But while U.S. officials currently refuse refugee status to those Soviet Jews who do not demonstrate “a well-founded fear of persecution,” Congress may approve legislation this fall granting refugee status automatically to all Soviet Jews.
Refugee status allows potential immigrants to be admitted to the United States on an emergency basis and entitles them to government funds for transportation and initial resettlement costs.
Leaders of Jewish agencies involved in assisting Soviet Jews to emigrate and resettle in the United States discussed the refugee situation Wednesday in New York with experts from the State Department, Justice Department and National Security Council.
They met with Priscilla Clapp, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff; Michael Lempres and Murray Dickman, top aides to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh; and Nancy Dyke, the NSC’s director of international programs.
Jewish groups received the plan to shift processing from Rome to Moscow “with great interest and considerable support,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
NO NEED FOR ROME TRANSIT POINT
Hoenlein said that among the Jewish groups, there was consensus that there is no longer “need for a transit point” in Rome.
Refugee processing in Moscow “does not require Soviet Jews to give up their jobs in advance,” he said, adding that they would not longer be in “a state of limbo” while waiting to receive refugee status.
To iron out a new system for processing in Moscow, the administration is setting up a working group with non-government agencies, Hoenlein said.
He said U.S. officials indicated the new policy may be implemented as early as Oct. 1.
But the U.S. officials assured the Jewish leaders that those Soviet applicants for refugee status already waiting in Rome, most of whom are Jews, would be “grandfathered” in as refugees, Hoenlein said.
The U.S. officials met first with the Monitoring and Accountability Committee of the United Jewish Appeal’s “Passage to Freedom” campaign for Soviet Jewry, and later with the Conference of Presidents.
The committee includes representatives of the Council of Jewish Federations, HIAS, the Joint Distribution Committee, United Israel Appeal, UJA and various community federations.