Jewish Groups May Not Fight Plan to Cut Soviet Immigration to U.S.
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Jewish Groups May Not Fight Plan to Cut Soviet Immigration to U.S.

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A reported plan by the State and Justice departments to radically limit the number of Soviet Jews immigrating to the United States as refugees may be receiving tacit support in some Jewish organizational circles.

The plans for such limitations were outlined in a report Sunday in The New York Times. Citing confidential State Department documents, the Times reported that plans are under way to grant refugee status only to Soviet Jews with immediate family in the United States, who make up only an estimated 35 percent of applicants.

The report did not surprise the national leadership of major Jewish organizations, some of whom had already discussed the issue with the officials formulating such plans.

“The handwriting has been on the wall for a number of months,” said David Harris, Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee.

He said that while Jewish groups continue to advocate a generous approach to the refugee situation, they are recognizing that, because of the “sheer numbers” of Jews being permitted to leave the Soviet Union, limitations on the numbers that can come to the United States are inevitable.

Harris said that the Bush administration is hoping to reach an accord with the Jewish community on the issue, and win its approval for the new policy. Such a strategy would prevent a battle with Congress, which has in the past been very supportive of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“The administration would like to turn to congressional leaders and say, ‘We’ve reached an understanding with the leadership of American Jewish organizations,’ ” Harris said.

He called the negotiation of such an understanding “delicate but possible.”

The possibility for such an accord lies in the common concern on the part of the federal government and the Jewish community over the costs of settling the emigres in the United States.

With record numbers of Soviet Jews flooding out of the Soviet Union and the vast majority coming to the United States, the price tag for an open-door policy is rising for both the U.S. government and the Jewish community.

“The majority of federations will not fight the government on this because of their own financial problems,” said Ben Zion Leuchter, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which assists Soviet Jews in immigrating to the United States.


“Some Jewish communities are saying that their resources are limited and that they are nearing the point where they can only fund family-reunification cases,” Leuchter said.

He added that communities that have recently agreed to settle Soviet Jews with no close American relatives have only done so “under extreme pressure from national leadership.”

What Leuchter calls “the Israel factor” may also push American Jewish leaders toward agreeing to limitations on Soviet Jewish emigration to the United States.

For years, the Israelis have contended that since emigrating Soviet Jews hold Israeli entry visas, they should not be deemed refugees. In 1987, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked President Ronald Reagan to discontinue the granting of such status.

Harris pointed out that because of the existence of Israel, Soviet Jews are “uniquely fortunate in that they have another place to go.”

The Cambodians “who are stuck in camps on the Thai border have nowhere else to go,” he observed.

Both Harris and Leuchter made it clear that if the Jewish community were to accede to the plan, it would only come in exchange for serious concessions on the part of the Bush administration on other issues surrounding Soviet Jewish emigration.

In the short term, that means granting refugee status to the more than 14,000 Soviet Jews currently in transit centers in Europe, who are awaiting or have been denied refugee status and, therefore, entry to the United States.

“There is an overwhelming feeling that those denials should be ended,” said Leuchter, who called the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s approval process “arbitrary.”

Another possible condition mentioned by Jewish leaders would be an increase in U.S. government funds to Israel, to help it shoulder the burden of an increased number of Soviet immigrants.

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