Behind the Headlines: Ups and Downs of Refugee Arrivals Have Put Financial Strain on Hias

For the U.S. Jewish community, the benefit of helping Soviet Jews reach freedom has always far outweighed the cost of bringing them to the United States.

So two years ago, when the U.S. government asked organized Jewry to accept full financial responsibility for 8,000 of the 40,000 Soviet Jewish refugees it would allow to enter the country in fiscal year 1990, the Jewish community happily agreed.

For the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was responsible for transporting refugees and coordinating their placement here, this meant an outlay of $3.7 million to cover the initial costs of the “unfunded” refugees, as they are called.

The agency would eventually be reimbursed for coordinating the transportation and placement of the 32,000 government-funded refugees. But it wound up with a $3.5 million deficit from assisting the 8,000 others.

HIAS was counting on reducing the deficit with the help of future government grants covering the next two years’ expected immigrants.

But this year, much fewer Soviet Jews are coming than predicted. With just over two months left in the 1991 fiscal year, fewer than half of the 40,000 slots set aside for Soviet Jews have been filled, and the projected annual total is between 26,000 and 30,000 refugees.

This means that HIAS, which started the year with the staffing and budget needed to assist the maximum number of expected refugees, has no immediate prospect of closing its budget gap.

“Our costs this year don’t vary one-for-one with arrivals, but our revenue from the federal government varies one-for-one with arrivals, which is what produced the problem,” said Karl Zukerman, the agency’s outgoing executive vice president.

A SOLUTION COULD BE DIFFICULT

HIAS is not alone in this dilemma. Many Jewish federations across the country that had hired staff and enlarged programs to resettle their share of refugees now find themselves scrambling to balance budgets.

But a solution could be more difficult for HIAS, whose refugee processing costs are almost fully funded by the U.S. government.

This fiscal year, HIAS budgeted $12.4 million for refugee costs and expected to receive 70 percent of that amount from government grants, according to HIAS officials. HIAS also receives yearly allocations from local federations, totaling about $2.6 million, and smaller amounts of revenue from various other sources.

“Assuming a flow of about 40,000 funded refugees in each year of 1991-1992, this would produce enough of an operating surplus so that we could repay the deficit over two years,” explained Zukerman.

Instead, the unexpected slowdown in refugee arrivals has forced HIAS to re-evaluate its situation.

Like most Jewish agencies that deal with refugees, HIAS is hoping that the numbers will pick up by the year’s end — both for financial and humanitarian reasons.

HIAS officials also hope that the U.S. government will allow any unused slots to be transferred to the 1992 fiscal year, along with the government funding that accompanies them.

“Now the question comes, will there be enough of an increase in numbers, in addition to the expected 40,000, to make up the difference?” asked Zukerman.

‘VERY POOR GRADES’

He said HIAS has already taken steps to reduce costs, including leaving vacant positions empty, and the agency is “looking at the next year for further reductions” if necessary.

But the ebb and flow of refugees has had more than just a financial effect on HIAS — the agency has come under bitter criticism for its handling of information on the refugees.

After an independent report found that relations between HIAS and other Jewish social service agencies had deteriorated over the resettlement issue, Zukerman resigned.

“The agency got very poor grades,” said Alan Molod, a HIAS vice president and chairman of the review committee.

“In my opinion, the agency was consumed with fulfilling its mission of saving lives and put that above maintaining relationships,” explained Molod, a Philadelphia lawyer.

Much of the criticism against HIAS focused on the problems federations had in receiving accurate and timely numbers of arriving refugees.

But Ben Zion Leuchter, president of HIAS, called this a case of “killing the messenger.”

HIAS always provided information as quickly as it received it, and when the information was not forthcoming, it was usually Moscow that was to blame, explained Leuchter.

“My God, we’re not in the Kremlin,” he said.

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