Jews seeking U.S. refugee status face rule change

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (JTA) — Jews in the former Soviet Union have a new hurdle to overcome before they can be accepted as refugees in the United States.

Because of a rule passed at the end of last year, a refugee’s American relatives will have to take an extra step in the refugee’s application process.

The change could result in confusion and delays in resettlement for thousands of people from the former Soviet Union seeking refugee status, social service agencies warn.

A refugee’s close relative, who has to sign an affidavit establishing his relationship to the refugee, must now prepare the affidavit at a resettlement agency for processing before it can be sent to the State Department.

The new rule takes effect March 1, but many Jews — especially in smaller communities — are unaware of the change, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The agency is trying to spread the word, and already has contacted Jewish family service organizations and other agencies that can help notify people. HIAS will check applications for accuracy and act as a clearinghouse.

Before the procedural change, relatives of potential refugees from the former Soviet Union would submit the affidavit themselves by sending it straight to the State Department’s processing center in Washington.

Refugees from other parts of the world already follow the process of having to file through a resettlement agency. The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department told HIAS the change was necessary for refugees from the former Soviet Union to standardize the refugee application process and prevent fraud.

HIAS, the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the United States, expects to receive several thousand applications this year that will have to go through the new screening process.

During the heavy waves of Russian refugee resettlement in the 1970s and 1980s, HIAS was involved in thousands of cases, but lately it has been handling only a few hundred applications per year.

HIAS is working on a procedure to handle the new flow of work, according to Marina Belotserkovsky, the agency’s director of Russian communication and outreach.

The change is a burden, Belotserkovsky said.

Refugees are defined as those who flee their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.

In 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment established that former Soviet Jews could be considered likely targets of persecution, making it easier for them to apply for refugee status.

Under U.S. law, no more than 80,000 refugees can be admitted to the United States each year, including 37,000 from Europe, which includes the former Soviet Union.

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