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Senate action gives new life to law aiding Russian emigres

WASHINGTON, June 22 (JTA) — Jews from the former Soviet Union seeking refuge in the United States have won a reprieve. A key Senate subcommittee agreed last week to a one-year extension of legislation that allows such refugees to immigrate under eased criteria. The move came after a House committee deleted the measure from its foreign operations bill, citing budgetary concerns. Following that setback, Jewish immigrant advocates leaned heavily on the Senate to include the measure as part of its foreign aid bill. The provision, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, was enacted in 1990 under the sponsorship of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in response to growing concerns about the potential for an anti-Semitic backlash in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. Under the law, historically persecuted groups seeking refuge in the United States, including Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union, have to show a “credible basis for concern” about the possibility of persecution. Other refugees must prove “well-founded fears” of persecution. The legislation, set to expire in October, has enjoyed strong support over the years. Last year, it passed both houses by wide margins. This year, however, efforts to extend the measure for a period of two years were dealt a setback after the Congressional Budget Office issued a cost assessment claiming the provision would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal budget in coming years. Immigrant advocates dismissed the budgetary concerns as “bogus,” and last week the CBO clarified its assessment, saying a one-year extension of the measure would incur no additional costs. Jewish activists hailed the Senate move and expressed optimism that both houses ultimately would agree to an extension of the refugee provision. “The camel’s nose is in the tent,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington Action Office. “We have a fighting chance now.” Meanwhile, in a separate development affecting Jewish immigrants, the Senate Finance Committee agreed to a plan to restore cuts in immigrant welfare benefits that goes further than both a competing House plan and the original budget deal struck between Congress and the White House. The landmark welfare reform law enacted last year cut nearly all federal aid to legal immigrants who are not citizens. The Clinton administration and some lawmakers, however, have been seeking to mitigate its impact by restoring some of the benefits. The Senate plan would cover all non-citizens now collecting benefits and give disabled immigrants until Sept. 30 to sign up for Supplementary Security Income and Medicaid. In addition, it would spend $200 million to allow immigrant children to qualify for Medicaid. Altogether, the plan would allow $700 million more in aid for legal immigrants than the budget agreement. It also goes further than the House plan, which would deny disability benefits to immigrants who were not on the rolls as of Aug. 22, 1996 – – the day the welfare law went into effect. The competing welfare “fixes” will be reconciled in a conference between both houses in coming weeks.

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