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Congress Considering Loan Fund to Replace U.S. Aid to Refugees

October 27, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

U.S. Jewish groups are grappling with a radical proposal to replace government aid to Soviet and other refugees with a “revolving loan fund” that recipients would replenish.

Such a government loan fund, reminiscent of the Hebrew Free Loan Society that helped pay for many Jews to immigrate to the United States decades ago, would likely parallel the Guaranteed Student Loan program.

The proposal, floated by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), would not go into effect this fiscal year, because it would involve restructuring the entire refugee program, said Ellen Witman, associate Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Since federal funds would be needed primarily for the start-up costs of the fund and for costs of U.S. personnel to process refugee applications, it could save the government millions of dollars now spent on transporting refugees and aiding their initial resettlement.

Such savings could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of Soviet Jewish refugees admitted to the United States. This fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the U.S. quota on all refugees from the Soviet Union is 50,000, though many times that number are expected to seek entry.

Under the plan, working-age refugees would be required to pay back their loans, with exemptions or special treatment possibly given to the young, elderly and handicapped, said Nancy Coffey, Metzenbaum’s spokeswoman.


Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said he would object to seeing the current refugee program become essentially loan-based.

Saperia expressed a community relations concern, that Jews could face “negative fallout” from a complete overhaul of the refugee program. He said an argument could be made that because of a greater demand by Soviet Jews to emigrate, “suddenly the refugee program becomes a loan program.”

He added that a loan program could “perpetuate inequities” between refugees from different countries. For example, a Soviet Jewish doctor might be “in a better position to get in” than a refugee from elsewhere, he said.

“Our people (Soviet Jews) by and large are more capable of entrepreneurship,” which could lead policy-makers to give a “leg up to one group and not to another,” Saperia argued.

Witman of CJF agreed with Saperia that the United States should not “bar people from coming who qualify as refugees simply because they are not a good loan risk.” She expressed confidence that Metzenbaum would issue many exemptions for loan repayment.

But Metzenbaum’s spokeswoman said that, with the exception of the young, elderly and handicapped, it would be “inappropriate to say certain kinds of people pay and some do not.”

An alternative being explored by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) would preserve government-funded refugee slots, but would use the loan program to allow additional refugees to enter the United States once the quota had been exceeded.

Congressional action on legislation by Metzenbaum or Solarz is not expected until next spring at the earliest.

But Congress may act sooner on a proposal by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to allow additional refugees to enter the United States this fiscal year by providing them with partial funding.

Under the plan, refugees would receive medical assistance, but not be reimbursed for transportation or other resettlement costs.

Of all components of U.S. government aid to refugees, medical assistance is the “most important” one, Schumer said in an interview Tuesday.

David Harris, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, called health insurance a “major obstacle” to those Soviet Jews who enter the United States without government funding.

Soviet Jews, Harris said, are “disproportionately elderly,” compared to other refugees, meaning their medical needs are greater than average.

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