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Lautenberg Amendment Mired in Debate on Foreign Aid Bill

September 17, 1996
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A continuing squabble in Congress about abortion language in the foreign aid bill could be an obstacle for Jews from the former Soviet Union seeking refuge in the United States.

The dispute has nothing to do with Jewish refugees per se, but their fate — at least for the moment — is tied to approval of the foreign aid bill.

An amendment in the bill eases admission standards for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union.

Current U.S. law affording special status to historically persecuted groups expires Sept. 30, and the pending amendment would extend the law for another year.

The $12 billion foreign aid bill, however, is now mired, as it was last year, in a dispute about whether to ban funding to international family planning programs that include abortions and abortion counseling.

The bill includes $3 billion in U.S. aid for Israel, $2.1 billion for Egypt and additional policy provisions favorable to Israel.

The outlook for renewal of the refugee law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, thus remains uncertain.

Enacted in 1990, under the sponsorship of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the Lautenberg Amendment came in response to growing concerns about the potential for an anti-Semitic backlash in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise.

Under the law, historically persecuted groups seeking refuge in the United States, including Jews and evangelical Christians, only have to show a “credible basis for concern” about the possibility of persecution instead of having to prove “well-founded fears,” as is the case with other refugees.

The amendment itself, Jewish activists say, is not controversial. Congress has already passed it and the Clinton administration supports it. It is only a question of which legislative vehicle can be used to bring the amendment to the president for his signature before it expires.

Should the law expire at the end of the month, there is not likely to be a perceptible impact on Jewish refugees, according to Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Any lapse would only be temporary, Wenick said, with Congress likely to take action on the legislation again next year and make it retroactive to Jews who applied for refugee status after Oct. 1.

In a worst-case scenario, if the law is never extended, thousands of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union could be denied entrance to the United States. HIAS estimates the arrival of more than 30,000 Jewish refugees in 1996.

If the impasse over the foreign aid bill is not broken by the time Congress adjourns Sept. 27, the bill, including the Lautenberg Amendment, would likely be folded into the Continuing Resolution, effectively extending it for another year.

The Continuing Resolution would include all unresolved spending bills.

Proponents of aid to Israel, meanwhile, say they are confident that foreign aid spending will be approved before Congress adjourns for the election.

But Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said, “We take nothing for granted. We will not rest until there’s legislation signed.”

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