U.S. cuts threaten Jewish refugees

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Citing protracted chaos in the former Soviet Union as a continuing threat to Jews, Bay Area Jewish leaders are vowing to fight a new move to cut by 50,000 the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year.

"The situation in the former Soviet Union can only be described as pseudo-anarchic," said Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco. "Now is not the time to consider slashing the refugee programs."

Late last month, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims approved a measure that cuts the number of refugees allowed in by half; reduces overall legal immigration by about one-third; and ends family reunification programs for all relatives except spouses and minors.

Those favoring the cuts advance mostly economic arguments — charging that social service programs for immigrants strap taxpayers, for example, and that newcomers usurp jobs that rightfully belong to Americans.

The measure, which the full committee will consider next month, comes on the heels of other attempts to cut the number of refugees allowed to immigrate each year.

"It's clear that we're up against an incredible force across the board," Klarfeld said. "There are enormous moves to cut the refugee program."

Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation who has long been involved in the fight to keep U.S. doors open to Soviet Jews, added that "from the perspective of Jewish community and Jewish tradition, this subcommittee vote must be reversed."

In order to enter this country with refugee status, which guarantees such benefits as government-sponsored health care, ex-Soviet Jews must demonstrate a past history of persecution and/or current fear for their safety. If they are not fleeing immediate danger, they are unlikely to receive refugee status unless they have close relatives living in the United States.

The vast majority of Soviet Jews enter this country as refugees; they comprise one-third of all refugees entering the country, according to Klarfeld. Immigrants from Indochina and Haiti are also strongly represented.

If fewer refugees are allowed to immigrate, Klarfeld and others fear, ex-Soviet Jews wanting to come here will have to wait longer to do so — or not get in at all.

While some of those refugees could choose to immigrate to Israel, others want only to join relatives who are already in the United States.

The pending congressional legislation, known as the Immigration in the National Interest Act, was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the Immigration and Claims Subcommittee.

In addition to cutting the number of refugees, it would reduce legal immigration from about 830,000 to 585,000 a year. It would also restrict visas to highly skilled workers as well as to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

"Immigration policy must bring people to this country who have the skills and education to be productive members of our society," Smith said in a prepared statement. He added that American taxpayers spent $25 million last year in welfare payments to "people who do not have the skills to succeed," and that immigration reform addresses that issue.

In an interview this week, Smith said Soviet Jews will not be hurt by his measure. According to the congressman, figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Service show that the largest groups of refugees — Soviet Jews and Indochinese — are shrinking dramatically and will be absorbed within the next two years.

Therefore, if his measure goes into effect in 1997, Smith said, 50,000 slots — instead of the current 100,000 — should be enough to accommodate remaining refugees.

Should the 50,000 be insufficient, he stressed, his measure allows the president and Congress to alter refugee numbers, declaring a refugee emergency if they see fit.

Despite such provisions, however, three Jewish congressmen who are staunch advocates of keeping immigration numbers unchanged have begun organizing for an expected showdown over Smith's measure. They are Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Howard Berman (D-Studio City).

The three lawmakers are drafting amendments to restore the cuts in the refugee program, as well as the overall immigration numbers.

Meanwhile, local Jewish community leaders such as Feinstein, Klarfeld and Abby Snay of Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco say they plan to join the effort to restore the cuts.

The doors for Jewish refugees must remain ajar, they say, citing continuing civil war in such states as Georgia, thriving popular anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and the growing popularity of such ultra-nationalist politicians as Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, infamous for his anti-Semitic slurs.

They are also concerned that the new congressional measure would limit reunification to the closest relatives.

The congressional measure does not pose the only threat to refugees seeking to immigrate, however.

The White House Commission on Immigration Reform, or Jordan Commission, recently advocated cutting the number of refugees allowed into this country to the same 50,000 figure as Smith suggests, among other recommendations.

President Clinton has not stipulated which of the commission's proposals he supports.

And in June, the Senate subcommittee on immigration passed the Simpson Bill, aimed at stemming illegal immigration but also containing a provision cutting the number of refugees allowed to immigrate.

However, lobbying by the Jewish community and others led to an amendment sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that deleted references to refugees.

Given such past successes, local Jewish leaders are optimistic about fighting current efforts to reduce the number of refugees and other legal immigrants who enter the country.

"We've been successful in trying to make our case at every level," Feinstein said. "Because there's basic underlying justice to the position we've been arguing, the case has made itself."

The latest attempt to cut the number of refugees and legal immigrants coming into the United States, opponents say, reflects a mood in this country that led to the passage of California's Proposition 187 in November. "This is all part and parcel of the anti-immigrant sentiment that is developing in this country," Klarfeld said.

That trend, activists say, has impact that extends far beyond the Jewish community.

"While the implications for the Jewish community are devastating, it's important to focus on the implications for refugees from around the world," said Snay, JVS executive director. "There are disasters in Bosnia, Rwanda. There have to be some places for them to go."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.