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Reasons for decline are many; ‘alarming’ INS refusal rate is one

WASHINGTON, March 23 (JTA) — There is no question that Jewish immigration to the United States has slowed dramatically in recent years. Jewish organizational officials expect between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews to arrive this year from the former Soviet Union, down from a record 47,000 only seven years ago. There are many reasons for this sharp downturn: * fewer Jews are seeking to leave; * fewer Jews are eligible for the refugee program, which is based on family reunification; * Jews seeking refugee status are being denied entry in record numbers; * the high costs of emigration, including travel to Moscow for interviews with officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The number of Russian Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel has risen in the past few months amid an atmosphere of economic decline and resurgence of anti- Semitism in the largest of the former Soviet republics. But even if more wanted to immigrate to the United States, the rules dictating immigration make it unlikely that more would be able to come. Under legislation passed in the early 1980s, the U.S. government and the Jewish community share in the costs of resettling Jews from that region. They enter the country as refugees and are entitled to a host of social service benefits, including cash assistance and intensive counseling. But the Jewish refugee program, like most U.S. immigration programs, is based on family reunification and is subject to federal quotas. With few exceptions, the only Jews from the former Soviet Union allowed to come to the United States already have relatives in the country. These refugees come into the United States under a special status, enacted as the Lautenberg Amendment, are assumed to be have a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The American Jewish community has helped to resettle more than 250,000 Jews since 1989, when the Soviet Union first opened its doors to mass emigration after years of denying freedom of movement. Since that time, more than 80 percent of those applying for refugee status received approval. But denial rates by the Immigration and Naturalization Service have reached record levels. By last summer, the INS was denying two out of every three applicants, a rate Jewish officials called “alarming.” The first two months of 1999 have shown a promising turnaround with two out of every three applicants now receiving approval. But, said Leonard Glickman, executive director of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, that rate is “still unacceptable.” Jewish officials recently traveled to the region to investigate the denial problem, but came back with few answers. No one knows for sure why the rates suddenly skyrocketed. If applicants are rejected they can still come to the United States. But they receive “parolee” status and are barred from all government assistance programs until they become citizens, which takes a minimum of 5 years.