Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Soviets Imposing New Obstacles to Jewish Emigration from USSR

April 4, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union has slowed down in recent months, in part because of new obstacles imposed by Soviet authorities, according to American Jewish organizations assisting Soviet Jews.

As a result, Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States could fall “substantially short” of the 40,000 Jews originally expected to arrive this fiscal year under the U.S. refugee program, according to Karl Zukerman, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which assists Jews immigrating here.

The new obstacles could also reduce the flow of Soviet emigres to Israel, though the impact is not expected to be as great, since far more Soviet Jews are going there to begin with, and different emigration procedures are involved, officials say.

The uneven flow of Soviet Jews to the United States this year has already had a negative impact on resettlement operations run by Jewish agencies in the United States.

One national Jewish leader even warned recently that local Jewish communities may soon begin dismantling “some of their resettlement structure” if “the current slowdown in the flow of refugees to our communities continues for much longer.”

The new obstacles to Soviet Jewish emigration are also apparently serious enough that they have been raised in recent diplomatic contacts between the United States and Soviet Union.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, outlined the major obstacles in a Feb. 26 letter to Raymond Seitz, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs.

They include processing delays and reduced hours at local offices of OVIR, the Soviet Interior Ministry agency that issues exit visas; a tightening of regulations specifying which relatives qualify for emigration on the basis of family reunification; and an increase in the number of visa refusals on the basis of such traditional impediments as alleged access to “state secrets” or eligibility for military service.


Major delays have been reported at OVIR offices in the Ukraine, Moldavia and Uzbekistan.

The local OVIR offices “are taking a very long time to give permission to Jews seeking to leave the Soviet Union for the United States who have already received permission from the United States,” said Zukerman of HIAS. “The OVIR, instead of taking three to four months, is taking eight or nine.”

“This delay is inhibiting the flow quite considerably, which is why we have, after half a fiscal year, just about 9,000 arrivals out of an expected 40,00 for the full fiscal year,” he said.

“This leads us to believe we will run substantially short of the expected 40,000, maybe 28,000 to 30,000.”

“The United States is moving at quite a substantial rate. It is the OVIR which is inhibiting the flow,” Zukerman stressed.

In his letter to Assistant Secretary of State Seitz, Wenick of the National Conference blamed the delays on the failure of Soviet authorities to devote adequate “staff resources to handle the substantially increased volume” of people applying to emigrate.

“To try to cope with the substantial increase in the number of individuals desiring to emigrate, many OVIR offices have resorted either to limiting hours for receipt of applications or to limiting the number of applications they will receive on a given day or in a given week,” wrote Wenick. “This can and does result in inordinate waits before one can even submit an emigrant visa application,” he wrote.


The OVIR office in the large Ukrainian city of Kiev, for instance, has recently been seeing only a trickle of people, according to Lynn Singer, executive director of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry.

She said among the reasons given for the office’s reduction in hours of operation were a shortage of paper or closing for renovations.

Although many of the delays may be due to a mounting backlog of cases, Zukerman said there is “a kind of hypothesis” that anti-Semitism lurks behind the bureaucratic snafus.

“Some people speculate it is not just a bureaucratic backlog but a deliberate tightening-up,” given the reascendancy of conservative forces in the Soviet hierarchy.

Others point to recent U.S.-Soviet strains over arms control and the Kremlin’s suppression of the independence movements in the Baltic republics as factors that could contribute to a slowdown in the flow of emigrants.

They note that at about the time that the political climate began to change, Soviet authorities began again strictly enforcing a requirement that those wishing to immigrate to the United States have letters of invitation from close relatives already living here.

Such invitations are also required for those going to Israel, but the definition of a close relative there has been relatively loose for some time.

The result of the tighter policy for U.S.-bound emigrants, Wenick wrote in his Feb. 26 letter, is that “extended family members desiring to depart with immediate relatives of individuals living in the United States are often also unable to submit visa applications.”

Ben Zion Leuchter, president of HIAS, said the return to the prior policy of insisting on invitations from only “first-degree relatives” began suddenly a few months ago.

“Nobody knows why the policy was established,” Leuchter said. But “we are concerned.”

A spokesman at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, however, denied there had been a change in policy. He said he had “just picked up the invitation form and it has not changed.”

In addition to the bureaucratic obstacles, there has also been a recent increase “in the number of refusals because of alleged access to state secrets,” according to Wenick.

“This continues to be troubling because of the possibility that these refusals are not based upon reality but on capriciousness,” he wrote.

An official at the State Department in Washington said there were currently about 80 refuseniks left on its list of unresolved cases, “some old, some new.”


Zukerman of HIAS said the State Department had recently been “very active in pressing the Soviets to agree to certain solutions” to the new emigration problems.

“There were to be conversations in Moscow this week to try to move that along,” he said, but American diplomats were “asked to defer their trip” in the wake of last week’s fire at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

American Jewish leaders have been pressing the State Department to make the emigration concerns a diplomatic priority, because of the impact on the Jewish resettlement apparatus in the United States.

Jewish community federations around the country had been mobilized to resettle 40,000 Soviet Jews this fiscal year, and so far, fewer than 10,000 have arrived.

In a March 1 letter to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the National Conference and past president of the Council of Jewish Federations, explained that the uneven flow of Soviet Jews to the United States this year is creating “substantially increased resettlement costs to our communities.”

“We are willingly prepared to make sacrifices on behalf of our brethren,” she wrote, “but it is simply intolerable for us to incur substantial increased resettlement costs because of arbitrary and capricious Soviet actions.”

Cardin, who is also chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, warned that if the slowdown continues, local communities would consider “dismantling some of their resettlement structure as part of a cost-saving effort.”

Recommended from JTA