WASHINGTON (Apr. 18)
Congress took the first step Thursday to allow, if necessary, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to enter the United States next year if they are unable to do so this year.
The move, backed by the State Department, is being considered because it now appears likely that far fewer Soviet Jews will be able to immigrate here this fiscal year than allowed under the U.S. ceiling of 50,000 Soviet refugees.
By the end of April, the seventh month of the fiscal year, the Soviet government will have issued only a projected 18,200 exit visas to refugees bound for the United States.
The OVIR emigration agency would have to greatly accelerate the distribution of exit visas to reach the 50,000 target by Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.
Moreover, of the visas that have been issued, fewer than 12,000 have gone to Jews, compared with 6,000 issued to Pentecostal Christians. Jews were originally expected to account for 40,000 of the 50,000 available “refugee slots.”
Princeton Lyman, director of the State Department’s Bureau of Refugee Programs, told the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Task Force on Soviet Refugees on Tuesday that he was “deeply sympathetic” to the prospect of transferring Soviet refugee slots from one year to the next, as long as the necessary funds for bringing the refugees here was included in the transfer.
Lyman left later in the day for the Soviet Union to seek a bilateral emigration accord as an interim step while conservatives in the Supreme Soviet stymie a vote on a sweeping emigration reform bill.
“They’re negotiating pretty heavily,” said Mark Talisman, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations. The group plans to meet with Lyman when he returns next week.
SOVIET VISA DELAYS BLAMED
To ensure that any unused Soviet refugee slots from this year are not permanently lost, congressional committees have begun the process of voting to allow a transfer to occur.
The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international operations voted Thursday to approve the transfer as part of a joint State Department authorization bill for the 1992 and 1993 fiscal years.
But Talisman said that such a maneuver will not be needed with the budget of the Health and Human Services Department, which funds a matching grant program to help federations pay the refugees’ domestic resettlement costs. Such funding automatically rolls over to the next year if it is not used, Talisman explained.
Chris Gersten, director of the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, told the task force his office last year awarded about $55 million in grants to private agencies, $49 million of which went to the Council of Jewish Federations alone, for distribution to the various federations.
For this fiscal year, Congress has appropriated $39 million for the HHS program.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society attributed some of the delays in Soviet emigration to technical problems between the U.S. government and the agency in Moscow that arranges transportation for the refugees to the United States.
But the major reason for delays, HIAS President Ben Zion Leuchter told the House task force Tuesday, is that OVIR has “increased the time that it takes to get an exit visa, often beyond the time that the U.S. program calculated as necessary to turn the cases around.”
A MOSTLY EMPTY PLANELOAD
As a result, the flow of emigres is erratic. Last weekend, for instance, migration officials arranged a flight to carry 216 emigres from Moscow to New York’s Kennedy International Airport.
But only 71 of the Soviet refugees showed up, apparently because of Soviet processing problems. The plane flew to New York with 145 empty seats at a time when thousands of Soviet Jews are clamoring to leave.
Talisman said that Secretary of State James Baker, in a meeting last month with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, made a “major issue” of the “unevenness of the application of OVIR processing.”
Baker complained that the Soviets were not granting exit visas expeditiously to approved U.S. refugees who did not meet a strict definition of having immediate family here.
Ironically, Jews had an easier time getting out of the Soviet Union under a system the State Department, with Jewish communal support, scrapped in October 1989. Under that system, Soviet Jews seeking entry to the United States, as well as those wanting to go to Israel, all obtained Israeli entry visas.
The Soviets, whose emigration policy is most liberal when it comes to repatriation of Jews to Israel or ethnic Germans to Germany, distributed the visas fairly routinely to those nationalities.
Under that system, Soviet Jews seeking to immigrate to the United States would arrive in Vienna and “drop out” of their plans to make aliyah, traveling instead to the U.S. refugee processing center in Rome.
The system was abandoned because the Soviets were letting Jews out at a faster rate than the U.S. refugee ceiling would accommodate, creating an enormous backlog in Rome. Jewish organizations had to pay to house the Soviet Jews while they waited in Rome, sometimes for six months or longer.
$75 MILLION FOR REFUGEES IN ISRAEL
The policy also was scrapped on the premise that the Soviets would modify their emigration policy to allow Jews and others to immigrate to the country of their choice.
But Karl Zukerman, HIAS executive vice president, said that the conservatives’ growing power in the Soviet government, which was not foreseen at the time of U.S. processing shift, has blocked such a change in policy.
Zukerman, however, said he would not want to return to the old system, in part because of the massive financial costs any backlog in Rome would impose on the American Jewish community.
In another development Thursday, the House international operations subcommittee also approved $75 million in funding to help resettle refugees in Israel.
The United Israel Appeal will administer the money, which is double last year’s funding level and is also a marked increase over the $40 million that President Bush requested for the program in his 1992 budget.