Budget deal extends special status for Jewish refugees

Named for its sponsor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the measure was first enacted in 1989 in response to growing concerns about the potential for an anti-Semitic backlash in the wake of the Soviet Union's demise.

This year, as in years past, Congress agreed to a one-year extension of the law. Instead of requiring historically oppressed groups to prove a well-founded fear of persecution, as is the case with other refugees, the amendment only requires them to show a credible basis for concern about the possibility of persecution.

Passage of the measure was far from certain this year, but in the end, two Jewish senators, Lautenberg and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), made sure the amendment was included in the $500 billion spending bill that passed the House and Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Jewish immigrant advocates, led by the Council of Jewish Federations and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, hailed Congress' action, which they said helps keep the former Soviet Union refugee resettlement program alive as it winds down.

There was other good news for Jewish immigrants in the budget deal. The Clinton administration and Congress agreed to provide roughly the same number of refugee slots for Jews and others residing in Europe, 48,000, as it provided in the last fiscal year.

HIAS resettled 8,600 refugees from the Soviet Union last year and said the new allotment should be sufficient to accommodate the additional 5,000 to 7,000 Jewish refugees expected to arrive in the coming year.

Jewish officials said the steady drop-off in the tide of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union over the last few years is a sign of the refugee program's success.

"The program is family reunification, and as the pool of refugees that are eligible under the family reunification guidelines shrinks, you'll have less arrivals," said Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of HIAS.

Jewish immigrant advocates also claimed a victory in the ongoing skirmish over restructuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The beleaguered agency has been overwhelmed by a backlog of some 2 million people waiting to become citizens, including tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants.

Republican lawmakers dropped all proposals for a dramatic overhaul, including splitting the INS into several agencies and stripping the agency of its enforcement powers.

Instead, lawmakers granted the INS long-sought permission to shift $171 million from other accounts to help reduce the backlog — a move that Jewish officials have been advocating.

On the down side for immigrants, to help meet costs, INS application fees for citizenship are set to increase on Jan. 1 from $90 to $225 — an amount that could prove prohibitive to some Jews seeking citizenship.

And funding of social-service block grants took a big hit with a decrease of $399 million, which means less money will be available in the coming year for Jewish federation social services agencies.

"All in all, we came out of this budget kind of even," said Diana Aviv, director of CJF's Washington office.

On a separate front, Congress agreed to restructure Israel's foreign aid in accordance with Israel's commitment to reduce its dependence on U.S. aid. This year's package totals $2.94 billion, including $1.86 billion in military financing and $1.08 billion in economic support funds.

Economic aid to Israel was cut by $120 million this year, marking the beginning of a phasing-out process, with annual cuts of $120 million over the next 10 years. Half of the savings each year will be earmarked for military assistance in recognition of Israel's security needs.

At the end of the 10-year period, Israel is slated to receive a total of $2.4 billion in aid, all of it in military assistance.