NEW YORK (Jan. 2)
A total of 8,690 Jews left the Soviet Union in December, bringing the number of Soviet Jews who emigrated in 1989 to 71,196.
The figures were reported Tuesday by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which said the 1989 total was the highest since the group began tabulating emigration statistics in 1968.
It was nearly four times as large as the 1988 total of 18,965 and almost nine times as large as the 1987 total of 8,155.
The numbers tell the story of the dramatic changes that have taken place over the course of the past year, as the doors out of the Soviet Union opened wider than ever before, but entry to the United States became more difficult.
The December figures also reflect a new trend: an upsurge in the number of Soviet Jews deciding to settle in Israel, largely as a result of tighter U.S. immigration policies. Of the 8,690 Jews who left the Soviet Union as refugees last month, a whopping 3,590, or 41 percent, went to Israel.
The percentage was a huge increase from the figures of the previous 11 months, when the percentage of Soviet Jewish emigres going to Israel did not climb above 20 percent.
Officials at Jewish agencies involved with Soviet Jews expect the percentage of emigres settling in Israel to remain high in the coming months, since those intent on coming to the United States must now apply in Moscow for U.S. visas, which are scarce.
Most of the Soviet Jews coming to the United States now are those who had exit visas issued before Oct. 1, when the U.S. government changed its refugee policy. They are still eligible to come to the United States under the former system.
14,000 IN U.S. SINCE OCTOBER
Under that system, Soviet Jews arriving in Vienna on Israeli visas often opted to “drop out” and settle in the United States instead. They were sent to transit centers near Rome, where officials of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society assisted them in applying for U.S. refugee status.
During the last year, as the number of Jews leaving the Soviet Union swelled, the backlog of refugees waiting outside Rome for U.S. visas also grew.
U.S. government and Jewish agency officials hope to clear out the “pipeline” of Soviets waiting in Rome and Vienna in the next few months.
Philip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS, said that the number of Jews going to Vienna under the old system had “peaked sharply” during the last few weeks of December. He predicted that the Western European way stations would be free of Soviets waiting to go to the United States by June.
Soviet Jews and other emigres already in the “Vienna-Rome pipeline” will account for the majority of the 50,000 spots for Soviet refugees permitted by the United States for fiscal year 1990, which began in October. HIAS estimates that 30,000 of these emigres will be Jewish.
According to the State Department, 14,000 Soviets, both Jews and non-Jews, have immigrated to the United States so far this fiscal year.
Both Saperia and the State Department believe, however, that even after the last Soviets have cleared out from Vienna and Rome, some room will remain within the State Department quota to allow a number of those who applied for refugee status after Oct. 1 to immigrate directly from the Soviet Union to the United States.
The State Department will begin interviewing those seeking U.S. refugee visas under the new system sometime this month in Moscow. But those who are granted refugee status are not expected to be able to leave for at least three or four more months.
Others are expected to immigrate as parolees, which would allow them to enter the United States, but without the amount of assistance granted to refugees.
In a statement welcoming the announcement of the 1989 emigration figures for Soviet Jews, NCSJ Chairwoman Shoshana Cardin proclaimed the past year “the record year to date for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.”
“We trust that 1990 will also prove to be a milestone year,” she said.