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U.S. Jewish Groups Now Seeking Extra $70 Million for Refugees

With Congress back in session, one of the top priorities for Jewish social service agencies is to secure an additional $70 million for the State Department’s refugee budget.

The money will bridge a shortage of funds needed to bring 40,000 Soviet refugees to the United States this fiscal year with full government aid. An additional 10,000 refugees will be admitted with private assistance.

A $55 million shortfall in the State Department’s overall refugee budget emerged last fall, when Congress appropriated only enough money to pay for 84,000 of the 111,000 refugees worldwide to be admitted this fiscal year with full government funding.

The gap grew worse when the State Department recently cut its refugee admissions budget by $15 million to provide additional funds for a Health and Human Services Department program that assists newly arrived refugees with initial resettlement costs.

In effect, the State Department cut funds from the program used to bring refugees to the United States so it could help resettle the ones who have already arrived here.

That move brought some financial relief to Jewish community federations, which receive roughly $1,000 in cash and medical assistance from HHS for each newly arrived refugee. The federations match that amount with an average of $2,500 per refugee.

But the $15 million transfer angered relief agencies that are short of funds to help bring the refugees to the United States.

‘COMMUNITY RELATIONS PROBLEMS’

Because a number of these relief agencies work on behalf of non-Jewish refugees, the Jewish community has now been hit with “an enormous number of community relations problems,” said an executive of one Jewish agency involved.

The transfer to the HHS matching-grant program looks bad, because “80 percent of that program is ours,” said the executive.

Donald Hammond, director of U.S. ministries at World Relief, which, among other things, brings Soviet Evangelical Christians as refugees to the United States, said he would have preferred that the $15 million had stayed in the State Department’s refugee budget.

“It’s my feeling that it would be much better spent on getting people into the country than in using it for a matching grant program,” said Hammond.

“Let’s get people here into the country, out of the refugee situations they arc in, rather than worrying about a matching grant program once they are here,” he said.

Among the other relief groups he said are adversely affected by the transfer arc the American Council for Nationality Services, American Foundation for Czechoslovakian Refugees, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Polish American Immigrant Rescue Committee, Tolstoy Foundation and U.S. Catholic Conference.

The impacted Jewish agencies arc the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which assists Jewish immigrants in coming to the United States, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides various services for Jewish refugees in transit to the United States.

POLITICAL PLOY BY STATE DEPT.

Mark Talisman, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations, said his group is the victim of a political ploy by the State Department.

He said Foggy Bottom decided to take $15 million from its refugee admissions budget, “where they thought it would hurt the most.”

A State Department official confirmed this week that it decided to cut its refugee admissions budget by $15 million to compensate for the transfer.

But the official stressed that only the admissions budget was cut, not the assistance provided to refugees abroad after they have left their countries of origin. This was done because the department attaches higher priority to keeping people alive by providing food and shelter.

Talisman, however, said that the State Department should have come up with the funds from sources other than the refugee admissions budget. But he did not say where the money should have come from.

Talisman said the $15 million transfer from the State Department was necessary, because there was no other way to get additional money this year for HHS.

He said the Bush administration has so far opposed a supplemental appropriations bill for HHS. The prospects arc much greater for getting one approved for the State Department.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Robert Kasten (R-Wis.), chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, wrote President Bush on Monday, asking him to request a supplemental appropriations bill of at least $75 million for the State Department.

The controversy over the $15 million came despite a concerted effort by Jewish groups to refrain from requesting additional government funds and to avoid clashes with non-Jewish relief organizations.

JEWISH GROUPS WILL PAY $16 MILLION

For instance, despite a sharp rise in the number of Jews seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union, American Jewish groups decided not to ask the administration to increase its refugee quota for this fiscal year, fearing that it would come at the expense of other nationalities.

Jewish groups also resigned themselves to not seeking U.S. government funding for 10,000 of the 50,000 refugees from the Soviet Union.

An estimated 8,000 Jews will be among those 10,000 privately funded refugees, costing the Jewish community $16 million, said Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS.

Talisman, too, pointed to the consideration Jewish agencies have tried to show toward their non-Jewish counterparts.

Last year, when Congress approved a supplemental $100 million for the State Department refugee budget, $70 million had been slated for HIAS and the Joint Distribution Committee.

But of that $70 million, HIAS received just $4 million, and JDC got $8 million. The remaining $58 million has been “pro-rated against other deficiencies” in the refugee budget, helping non-Jewish groups, said Talisman.

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