Jews alarmed Congress may cut Russian immigration

WASHINGTON — Proposals to slash America's refugee program and close the borders to hundreds of thousands more immigrants would "eviscerate" the program for emigres from the former Soviet Union, according to at least one Jewish activist.

A plan currently being considered by the Senate would cut the total number of refugees allowed in the United States each year from about 110,000 to 50,000.

This year, about 25,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union are expected to come to America under the program.

Jewish activists fear that in allowing fewer immigrants, the government would be cutting the number of Jewish refugees who come into the country.

"If adopted, this would, in effect, eviscerate our program" for Jews from the former Soviet Union, said Diana Aviv, Washington director of the Council of Jewish Federations.

With this in mind, Jewish activists have launched a full-court press to "save the refugee program," said Aviv, who is leading the charge for the organized Jewish community.

Immigration issues have long been high on the organized Jewish community's agenda, not only because of Jewish immigrants and refugees coming to the country today, but because most American Jews come from immigrant families.

Because of this concern, Jewish activists also are opposing another proposal making its way around Capitol Hill. That plan would reduce the number of immigrants allowed in the United States each year by one-third, from 830,000 to 550,000.

Refugees are afforded special access to the United States and special benefits because they are presumed to be fleeing persecution. Most Jews from the former Soviet Union arrive refugee, rather than immigrant, status.

Jewish activists caution that even if they are successful in keeping the provision that would reduce the number of immigrants out of a Senate bill now under consideration, this is only one of many battles ahead on the immigration front.

Of about 100,000 Jews emigrating from the former Soviet Union this year, some 25,000 are expected to arrive in the United States. The rest are expected to go to Israel.

A full 32,000 are permitted entry into this country, but due primarily to bureaucratic shortfalls at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the actual number is lower.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) provided one positive note for immigration activists when he included the so-called Lautenberg amendment in the State Department Authorization bill now under consideration in Congress.

Named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the measure virtually guarantees Jews in the former Soviet Union refugee status because it declares that Jews are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution.

The Gilman measure extends the Lautenberg amendment through fiscal year 1997.

By then, an estimated 130,000 to 140,000 Jews are expected to be in the pipeline, waiting to come to the United States, according to Mark Seal, associate executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish communal organization most directly involved with resettling Jewish refugees.

Of the impending changes, Seal said, "We want the highest possible annual numbers, but we will create a program that works under any limitations."

How quickly Jews in the pipeline actually arrive would depend on the number of refugees allowed in the United States in future years.

In the current climate of budget cuts and anti-immigrant sentiment, there are at least two proposals for reducing the number of refugees.

Under his budget proposal, President Clinton has recommended reducing the annual number of refugees allowed in the United States from 110,000 to 90,000.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate's Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, is urging Congress to cap the number of refugees at 50,000 annually.

Simpson's subcommittee was expected to vote on the proposal as early as the end of this week. The subcommittee bill will be sent to the Senate floor.

Activists fighting to preserve refugee access to the United States suffered another blow this week when a bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform recommended cutting immigration by one-third.

The commission, which is headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, a Texas Democrat, has proposed a gradual reduction over the next decade, from the current level of about 830,000, to an eventual 550,000. In the interim, an estimated 650,000 would be admitted annually.

The commission is expected to take up the refugee program in the coming months.

Also at stake as Congress tackles immigration reform is the fate of the families of about 10,000 Jews who came to the United States as immigrants and are not afforded the protections refugees get, according to activists. In addition to emigres from the former Soviet Union, Jews have arrived from Iran and Syria.

Despite the proposed drastic reduction in immigration, the changes could benefit some immigrants and refugees already in the United States, depending on which relatives they are awaiting.

Under the commission's recommendations, which were set to go to Congress this week, spouses and children of legal aliens would get visa preference. At the same time, the commission recommended eliminating the backlog of visa applications already filed on behalf of these categories.

For U.S. citizens, their immediate relatives — including parents, spouses and children younger than 21 — would continue to be allowed to immigrate with no waiting period or limits to the number admitted annually.

The commission also was expected to recommend that Congress eliminate immigration preferences for other close relatives, such as brothers, sisters and adult children of U.S. citizens.

As the various recommendations and legislation wind through Congress, the Jewish community is standing firm.

"The Jewish community will not support cutting back immigration and refugee programs," Aviv said as she prepared for the upcoming battles on Capitol Hill.