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News Analysis: Despite Misgivings, Jewish Groups Backing Change in Refugee Policy

September 19, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

U.S. Jewish groups are generally supporting the Bush administration’s decision to process all Soviet refugees in Moscow, rather than Rome or Vienna, but they find many flaws with the Oct. 1 start-up date.

The new policy should save Jewish relief agencies millions of dollars spent on housing Soviet Jews in Rome while they await permission to enter the United States as refugees.

It will also likely bring an end to the government’s practice of denying refugee status to some Soviet Jews, which has been harshly criticized by some members of Congress as a betrayal of the longstanding U.S. pledge to help rescue Soviet Jewry.

Under the Refugee Act of 1980, refugee status is accorded to those who can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the country of their origin. Those granted refugee status automatically receive U.S. government funds for transportation and initial resettlement.

Both houses of Congress have now passed legislation that would give Soviet Jews, Evangelicals and various Indochinese nationals the presumption of being entitled to refugee status, although it has not yet been approved in final form.

The issue, however, may now be moot. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh issued a directive last week that orders Immigration and Naturalization adjudicators in Rome to “immediately reevaluate” cases in which refugee status has been denied.


Thornburgh’s directive apparently paves the way for U.S. adjudicators to grant refugee status to the 20,000 Soviets currently in the “Rome-Vienna pipeline,” most of whom are Jews.

The Jews leave the Soviet Union on Israeli visas, arrive in Vienna and then decide whether to go on to Israel or “drop out” and settle elsewhere. Those who wish to settle in the United States are sent to Rome to apply for refugee status.

Among 17,000 Jews in the pipeline are 4,000 Soviets who have already been refused refugee status, and 400 who have been refused again on appeal, said Mark Talisman, Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Thornburgh’s directive applies just to Italy. It remains to be seen how selective immigration authorities will be in Moscow.

The U.S. announcement to move the processing site resolves one of two unprecedented strains Jewish federations have faced this year in coping with U.S. refugee policy.

Under the new system to be set up in the Soviet capital, Soviet Jews and other applicants for U.S. refugee status will live at home while their applications are adjudicated at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

This will mean that Jewish relief agencies supported by the federations will no longer have to provide housing to Soviet Jews in Rome.

But the federations will still have to spend millions for domestic refugee resettlement. Jewish federations match every federal dollar spent on domestic resettlement with two or more times that amount.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has expressed reservations about the Moscow processing plan. But Karl Zukerman, its executive vice president, said, “If we had a capacity in (the Soviet Union) to move people out rapidly, without a backlog, it would be worth taking a risk.”

HIAS will discuss opening shop in Moscow with a working group to be set up by the administration and private groups to work out the logistics of the new policy.


One big concern of Jewish groups in whether the Justice Department will provide enough adjudicators to process the backlog of 40,000 applicants for U.S. visas currently in Moscow.

U.S. officials told Congress last week that the number of INS adjudicators would be increased on Oct. 1 from three to six.

But Talisman said the administration would need to place at least 50 adjudicators to handle the current backlog. He said there are plans to send an additional 22, possibly followed by 25 more.

Perhaps the biggest “what if” of the new U.S. policy is its assumption that the Soviet parliament, the Supreme Soviet, will radically revise its emigration laws next spring, as promised, to permit large numbers to immigrate directly to the United States.

At present, the Kremlin largely confines Jewish emigration to just one country, Israel, a policy it justifies as repatriation of Jews to their homeland.

When asked if the Soviet government has assured the Bush administration that it would allow large numbers of Soviet Jews to emigrate to the United States, Max Robinson, U.S. consul general at the embassy in Moscow, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week, “Oh no.”

Robinson said, “At the present moment, they are showing a lot of flexibility in granting people exit permission.” The Bush administration is counting on the Soviets to extend that flexibility to immigration to the United States.


A final concern Jewish groups have with the administration’s new policy is the refugee ceiling it has set for the 1990 fiscal year. The quota of 50,000 refugees from the Soviet Union is expected to be exhausted by those who have already applied to immigrate either to the United States or to Israel.

Competing for those 50,000 slots will be:

20,000 Soviets in Rome or Vienna, who have dropped out of their intention to immigrate to Israel;

35,000 Soviets, mainly Jews, holding Israeli visas who have yet to leave the Soviet Union but are expected to enter the pipeline within the next few weeks;

30,000 to 40,000 Soviets already in line at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow awaiting visas, only a few thousand of whom are Jews; and

100,000 additional Soviets expected to apply at the U.S. Embassy in the coming year, none of whom will apparently be able to enter as refugees for at least another year.

Based on the expected backlog in Moscow through the next 12 months, a growing number of Jews are expected to immigrate to Israel. So while U.S. Jewish groups remain critical of the logistics of the Bush plan, Israeli officials are warmly endorsing it.

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