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Administration proposes curb on number of Jewish refugees

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (JTA) — The Clinton administration has proposed reducing the number of refugee slots for Jews and others from the former Soviet Union in the next fiscal year. Out of 78,000 admissions authorized for the current year, 30,000 slots were allotted to refugees from the former Soviet Union. The administration plans to maintain the same number of total admissions for worldwide refugees next year, but with only 21,000 slots for refugees from the former Soviet Union. The latter group includes Jews and persecuted Christian minorities, both of whom are allowed to immigrate to the United States under eased criteria. While the White House and Congress have yet to work out the final numbers, as they do each year, the administration’s proposal has dealt an unexpected blow to Jewish refugee advocates. “We’re deeply disturbed by this,” said Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “We know that the numbers as time goes on will decline because” the Soviet refugee program “is a specifically defined program, but we don’t understand why the drop at this point is so significant.” U.S. law guarantees refugee status to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin for political or ethnic reasons. Once here, refugees are entitled to certain economic benefits not available to other legal immigrants. Under legislation known as the Lautenberg Amendment, Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union only have to show a “credible basis for concern” about the possibility of persecution. The number of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union processed by HIAS has steadily declined over the last six years, following an initial spurt of emigration that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. The number of emigres declined from roughly 46,000 in 1992 to 35,500 in 1993, 33,500 in 1994, 22,500 in 1995, 18,500 in 1996 and about 16,000 projected during the current year, according to HIAS. HIAS attributes the drop-off to the “finite” nature of the Soviet refugee program, which was designed to reunite family members with relatives living in the United States. There have been fewer applicants in recent years as that goal has been achieved, officials say. In the next fiscal year, HIAS is projecting the arrival of about 12,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union. But with thousands of evangelicals Christians also seeking refugee status, HIAS believes that the administration’s proposed 21,000 cap may be insufficient to accommodate the needs of both groups. For its part, HIAS recommended to the State Department that 30,500 admissions be allowed for refugees from the former Soviet Union in the coming year, with an overall ceiling of 111,550 for refugees worldwide. Because the administration’s proposal falls well short of those numbers, Jewish refugee advocates fear that there could be a significant impact on family reunification. “This puts a further obstacle in the way of families being able to live together for the last years of their lives because a lot of the people we’re talking about are the parents of people already living here,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington office. The Clinton administration, for its part, says its scaling back of refugee admissions has been dictated by changing facts on the ground — namely, a decline in new applications for refugee status. Jewish refugee advocates, however, say that refugees have encountered numerous bureaucratic obstacles in recent years — exorbitant exit fees, for example — that are partly responsible for the decline in numbers. They stress that if those obstacles were removed there would likely be an increased demand, which the new proposed limit would not be able to accommodate. Part of the difficulty in allocating slots stems from the way refugees from the former Soviet Union are grouped. For the current year, slots for European refugees — including those coming from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia — were set at a combined limit of 48,000. Thirty thousand slots were designated for refugees from the former Soviet Union and 18,000 for refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Responding to what it called “changed circumstances in the former Soviet Union,” the administration has proposed scaling back the overall European ceiling to 46,000 and tilting the balance toward those fleeing the former Yugoslavia. Under the plan, 21,000 admissions would be permitted for those coming from the former Soviet Union and 25,000 from the former Yugoslavia. Fearing that Jewish refugees may not fit under the proposed 21,000 cap, Jewish refugee advocates say they will push lawmakers and the administration to extend the overall cap beyond 78,000. That may be difficult, given the trend of recent years. In 1993, President Clinton set an annual ceiling for refugee admissions at 132,000. The number has steadily decreased — it is 78,000 for the current year. Refugee advocates remain hopeful that the Senate will raise the ceiling. They are pinning their hopes, in large part, on Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. At a recent hearing of his subcommittee concerning the annual refugee consultation, Abraham underscored the need for a “generous” refugee policy and took issue with what he termed the administration’s “progressively lower commitments to refugee admissions.” “Continued anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union and recent legislative efforts there that would severely restrict religious freedom argue for a continuation of our current program that helps Jews, evangelical Christians and members of other historically persecuted groups,” Abraham said, referring to a bill adopted by the Duma and vetoed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that would limit religious freedoms. The appeal for boosting refugee numbers, however, is not likely to find a welcome reception in the House, where Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, has consistently advocated curtailing admissions. His subcommittee is slated to hold its own hearings on the issue next month so that the numbers can be finalized by Sept. 30. “This is not an easy issue and it’s not an easy fight,” Aviv of CJF said.