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Congress’ Last Bill Includes Key Issues for Jewish Groups

As the 104th Congress concluded its major business this week, Jewish activists celebrated several last-minute legislative achievements.

The catch-all spending bill signed Monday by President Clinton includes $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel and a measure that eases admission standards for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union.

Both issues were legislative priorities for the Jewish community during the past year.

But the enactment of immigration reform legislation drew a tepid response. Jewish activists said they won a reprieve as lawmakers and White House officials worked out a compromise that tamed most of the legislation’s most onerous provisions concerning legal immigrants and access to federal benefits.

At the same time, the bill, aimed primarily at curbing illegal immigration, contains a number of provisions that one activist called “extremely problematic.”

The legislation, for example, would mandate the instant return of any refugee who cannot provide the proper documentation.

Jewish activists also objected to a provision they say could adversely affect immigrants because it weakens the ability of employees to sue for discrimination in the hiring process.

Still, Jewish activists said the removal of several key provisions viewed as punitive toward legal immigrants constituted an important victory.

One such provision would have denied refugees unemployment compensation. Another would have created additional obstacles for legal immigrants seeking to gain access to government benefits.

The bill also includes a compromise on the income level required for sponsorship of a relative seeking to immigrate.

“Nobody in the White House, nobody in the Congress and in other groups working on these issues thought that we would be able to get the egregious provisions concerning legal immigrants out of the bill,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington office.

Meanwhile, the $12 billion foreign aid bill was folded into the massive spending bill passed by Congress. It contains $3 billion in funds for early dispersal to Israel, $80 million for refugee resettlement and $50 million in anti-terrorism aid to Israel.

Congress also authorized U.S. participation in the Middle East Development Bank, but declined at this time to provide funding for the project.

The bill also mandates that all relevant U.S. government publications refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In addition, the appropriations package provides $2.1 billion in aid for Egypt, $75 million for the Palestinians as well as the final payment of Jordan’s debt forgiveness.

The legislation also includes a measure that renews U.S. law affording special refugee status to historically persecuted groups in the former Soviet Union.

Under the law, first enacted in 1990, Jews and evangelical Christians seeking refuge in the United States only have to show a “credible basis for concern” about the possibility of persecution instead of having to prove “well-founded fears,” as is the case with other refugees.

The legislation, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, extends the law for one year.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society welcomed renewal of the amendment.

In a time of “continuing instability in the former Soviet Union, Congress’ action is important,” said Martin Wenick, executive vice president of HIAS.

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