Jewish groups are praising legislation adopted Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives that would virtually assure that all Soviet Jews seeking to enter the United States could do so as refugees.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is expected to propose a similar provision next week in the Senate, when it begins voting on the 1990 State Department authorization bill.
The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Bush, would allow thousands of Soviet Jewish emigrants stranded in Italian transit communities to come to the United States.
Jewish groups were outraged last September, when the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service stopped granting refugee status to virtually every Soviet Jew who sought it.
To be deemed refugees, Soviet Jews, like other individuals seeking entry to the United States, must now demonstrate that they face “a well-founded fear of persecution” in their native country.
But the House voted 358-44 on Thursday to shift the burden of proof from the refugee to the INS. It would now have to explain why a particular Soviet Jew does not face such a fear.
Technically, the bill leaves the door open for the INS to refuse refugee status to some Soviet Jews. But INS spokesman Duke Austin said he did not know how the government could prove that an applicant would not face such a fear.
Refugee status grants access to U.S. government funds for transportation and resettlement.
4,000 DENIED REFUGEE STATUS
But backlogs in refugee processing could still occur, as has happened this past year, if the U.S. refugee quota for the Soviet Union is not high enough and the funds not ample enough to meet the crush of refugees seeking to enter this country, Austin noted.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), also applies to Soviet Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox, and certain categories of nationals of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
In drafting the legislation, Morrison consulted with Jewish and non-Jewish groups, including the Council of Jewish Federations, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Committee.
The INS and the Bush administration have not actively lobbied against the bills. But, said Austin, “we don’t believe, and the administration does not believe, that there should be a presumptive determination for any group.”
He said such a presumption contradicts U.S. refugee law, codified by the Refugee Act of 1980, which states that determinations be made on a case-by-case basis.
Austin also cited the potential costs of bestowing automatic refugee status on Soviet Jews. The United States spends $7,000 per refugee on transportation, processing and resettlement.
If 100,000 Soviets sought to enter the United States this year, as a U.S. diplomat in Moscow told The New York Times on Thursday, that could lead to a “$700 million price tag,” Austin said. The diplomat told the Times that 250,000 Soviets may apply to enter the United States in 1990.
This fiscal year, Soviet Jews have represented the overwhelming number of Soviets being accorded refugee status.
Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of HIAS, defended a presumption for Soviet Jews, saying that the INS has erred in refusing refugee status.
Between Sept. 1 and June 30, the INS refused refugee status to 18.6 percent of Soviet Jewish families that applied for it, about 4,000 people, according to HIAS.
Saperia cited historic Soviet treatment of Jews as justification for according refugee status to all who leave the country.
He acknowledged that few Soviet Jews are today being persecuted by the government, but added, “It is reasonable to assume this (Soviet) government isn’t all that secure.”
HIAS is currently figuring that 50,000 Soviet Jews will want to leave the Soviet Union in the 1990 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.