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Jewish Leaders Reassured That U.S. Isn’t Asking Jews to Return to USSR

September 18, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Top Bush administration officials are trying to reassure Jewish leaders that the new procedure for issuing U.S. refugee visas to Soviet Jewish emigrants will not reduce their options or force them to return to the Soviet Union.

Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger met at the State Department Thursday with leaders of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry to discuss the policy, which goes into effect next month.

Eagleburger and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh also sought to mollify members of the Agudath Israel of America on the subject at a White House meeting Thursday.

The fence-mending by the two adminstration figures was occasioned in part by what NCSJ’s chairwoman, Shoshana Cardin, called an “unfortunate” statement the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs, Jewel Lafontant, made last week during testimony before a House subcommittee.

Speaking Sept. 13, Lafontant said Jews denied refugee status by the United States “can always refugee status by the United States “can always return to Russia in these days of glasnost” or can go to Israel.

Her remarks seemed to apply to the backlog of thousands of Soviet Jews still in Vienna or Rome awaiting U.S. refugee visas.

Lafontant, who was at the meeting with Cardin and other NCSJ leaders, said her statement was misunderstood.

She said that she was merely trying to define the legal status of Soviet Jewish emigrants, not state a new policy denying them access to the United States.


According to NCSJ people at the meeting, Eagleburger was abashed by Lafontant’s remarks and called them “insensitive.”

The deputy secretary said his top priority is to expedite the immigration to the United States of Jews stranded in Rome and Vienna and to see to it that the situation does not reoccur.

As of Oct. 1, all applications for U.S. refugee visas must be made at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, rather than in Rome, where many Soviet Jews who emigrate on Israeli visas apply to settle in the United States instead.

Jewish organizations are concerned about Soviet Jews who already have left on Israeli visas and are waiting in Rome and for American officials to act on their U.S. visa requests.

Many have already been denied U.S. refugee status because they failed to meet the criteria.

Cardin observed that the new U.S. policy means Jews still will be able to come to the United States. But it may take longer, and more Jews might decide to go to Israel rather than wait, she said.

Eagleburger told the Agudath Israel leaders at the White House that the United States is “a victim of our own success. Jews are being allowed out in larger numbers than was ever the case and, damn it, I think that we had something to do with it.”

Eagleburger pointed out that Soviet Jews who do not qualify for refugee status can still enter the United States under public interest parole status. But that does not entitle them to financial assistance.

Those with refugee status receive U.S. government funds for food, shelter, transportation and other relocation costs.

Thornburgh gave the group assurances that in no case will “any such person be returned to the Soviet Union.”

He said he continues to support creation of a special immigration category for up to 30,000 emigres who may not be eligible for refugee status.


But meanwhile, he has ordered the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to make an “immediate re-evaluation” of 4,000 cases of Soviet Jews refused refugee status, some of them stranded in Italy for 18 months.

The Agudath Israel meetings took place as part of the organization’s daylong National Leadership Mission to Washington, which brought some 200 members from 16 states to the capital for meetings with administration officials and members of Congress.

Eagleburger’s meeting with the NCSJ delegation was held to provide the administration with its views before Secretary of State James Baker meets Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze next week in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Cardin presented Eagleburger with a list of 400 refusenik families, totaling about 2,000 persons, who have still not received emigration visas. She said that only four refuseniks have received visas in recent months, despite Soviet promises to expedite their cases.

Joining Cardin in the meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Albert Chernin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; and Daniel Mariaschin, associate director of public affairs for B’nai B’rith International.

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