U.S. restores 5,000 slots for ex-Soviet refugees

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WASHINGTON — The number of refugees from the former Soviet Union allowed to enter the United States has been cut, but not as drastically as originally sought by the Clinton administration.

Out of 83,000 admissions authorized for refugees worldwide, 26,000 will be allotted to refugees from the former Soviet Union — 4,000 fewer than were authorized this past year.

The administration had proposed to reduce the numbers by nearly a third for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but last week agreed to add an additional 5,000 slots.

Refugees from the former Soviet Union include Jews and persecuted Christian minorities, both of whom are allowed to immigrate to the United States under eased criteria.

Jewish refugee advocates, who were greatly disturbed by the administration's original proposal, hailed the decision to boost the numbers.

"It's closer to the reality of the total flow" of refugees from the former Soviet Union, said Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The 26,000 slots, he added, are a "workable number."

Jewish leaders believe that the extra slots will better assure that some 12,000 Jews projected to arrive in the current fiscal year from the former Soviet Union are guaranteed entry. The other slots are expected to be filled by evangelical Christians.

The Clinton administration originally had proposed cutting the number of slots for refugees from the former Soviet Union to 21,000, while Jewish groups had sought to maintain last year's figures of 30,000 from the former Soviet Union and 83,000 overall.

HIAS and the Council of Jewish Federations pressed the issue with the administration and Congress and successfully convinced officials to increase the overall cap to the same number as last year.

The administration's decision to increase the overall number of slots marks the first time that the White House arrived at a ceiling higher than its initial recommendation, Wenick said.

The 5,000 extra slots will remain unfunded pending a mid-year review to determine how many are actually needed.

Each year the White House sets the annual refugee numbers in consultation with Congress. The annual ceiling has been steadily reduced from 132,000 in 1993.

U.S. law guarantees refugee status to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin for political or ethnic reasons.

Once here, refugees are entitled to certain economic benefits not available to other legal immigrants.

Under legislation known as the Lautenberg Amendment, Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union only have to show a "credible basis for concern" about the possibility of persecution to be granted refugee status.