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Thornburgh Says Soviet Union Must Do More to Win Concessions

November 20, 1989
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The Soviets will have to do more than enact emigration reforms if they want to win trade concessions from the United States, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh told a gathering of North American Jewish leaders here Saturday night.

But at the same time, he said that “we had best recognize — and do everything we can to capitalize on — the extraordinary changes that are taking place” inside the Soviet Union.

Thornburgh was addressing the 58th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, which adjourned here Sunday morning. He spoke at length of his recent trip to the Soviet Union, on which two CJF officials accompanied him.

On the last day of that trip, Thornburgh got a peek at draft legislation that would institute a number of emigration reforms the United States and Soviet Jewry advocacy groups have long sought.

Last week, the Supreme Soviet gave preliminary approval to the legislation, adopting it on a first reading by a vote of 355-10.

But Thornburgh told the CJF audience here that “simply passing a law is not going to be enough to cure our concerns about the status of Soviet Jews.

“We must be convinced that not just the letter but the spirit of the law has taken root in the Soviet Union, before any relief” under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment is “put on the agenda,” the attorney general said.

“We are, in short, watching to see that opportunities to emigrate are institutionalized, and not just episodic, in the present uncertain flux of Soviet democratization,” he said.


The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Foreign Trade Act denies most-favored-nation trade privileges to the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc nations until they make substantial improvements in their emigration policies.

In his speech, Thornburgh pointed out that Soviet Jewish emigration has skyrocketed in the last few years.

In 1986, the United States received 787 applications from Soviet Jews and non-Jews seeking to enter the United States. “By 1990, there may well be as many as 100,000 or more,” he said.

“How to accommodate this modern-day exodus” has been a tremendous challenge for the United States, Thornburgh said.

He outlined a number of steps the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service has taken to respond to the dramatic influx.

One of the most recent moves was a decision to “clear the backlog in Rome,” where upward of 15,000 Jews who had emigrated from the Soviet Union on Israelis visas were waiting to receive permission to enter the United States as refugees.

Since Oct. 1, the United States has not been admitting Soviets with newly issued Israeli visas. Those who want to come to the United States must apply for U.S. refugee visas while still in Moscow.

This means the waiting period is done in the Soviet Union, which costs the United States — and groups such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — a lot less than housing them in Rome. It also means potential emigres can keep their jobs in the Soviet Union until they win refugee status from the United States.

While in Moscow, Thornburgh visited the INS processing facilities at the U.S. Embassy. “I am pleased to report we found that process swifter, more efficient and, perhaps most important, more compassionate,” the attorney general said.

Earlier this year, the INS was criticized by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, among other Jewish groups, for denying refugee status to an increasing number of Soviet Jews waiting in Rome. The government maintained that some Jewish refugees could not demonstrate a “well-founded fear” of persecution in the Soviet Union.

Said Mark Talisman, director of CJF’s Washington office, who accompanied Thornburgh to the Soviet Union: “The system in Moscow is actually working.”

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