Ex-Soviet asylum cases getting tougher, attorneys say

Vera Korablina was terrorized by an anti-Semitic, ultranationalist group in Kiev for nearly a year before she sought asylum in the United States.

But it took a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals to block the threat of deportation for Korablina, who now lives in the Los Angeles area. In October she was granted asylum.

Irina Chchetinina, also from Ukraine, had witnessed hooligans viciously attacking her Jewish neighbors after they had visitors from Israel, yet the police took hours to respond. Nonetheless, San Francisco attorney Neil Grungras had to take her case all the way to the Board of Immigration Appeals to win asylum for her in 1997.

"It was an extreme case," said Grungras. Her request for asylum "never should have been denied in the first place."

However, emigres and those who serve them believe it is becoming harder to win asylum cases.

Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, cited "a very disturbing trend of denial of refugee [and asylum] status.

"The real tragedy is what's happening in the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Services] offices and in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow," where Jews apply for refugee status, she said

The case of Korablina, who arrived in this country around late 1994, is one of the most extreme. When she first applied for asylum, a U.S. immigration judge had concluded that the assault and threats that she had experienced, and the disappearances of Jews taking place around her, amounted only to discrimination, not persecution.

The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed. It wasn't until this fall that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ruled that Korablina had a well-founded fear of persecution and is entitled to asylum.

INS decisions, Levermore said, "seem to have become much more weighted against Jews from the former USSR, both in terms of those there seeking refugee status and those here seeking asylum.

"It's a failure to apply the Lautenberg Amendment," a 1989 law that "presupposes a well-founded fear of persecution" for Jews in ex-Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the political and economic breakdown in Russia — and, to a lesser degree, in Ukraine — are fueling anti-Semitic nationalist movements. At the same time, Americans are "souring" on immigration and having difficulty recognizing that Jews in the former Soviet republics are in danger, Levermore said.

Anti-Semitism was no stranger to Korablina, 55, who grew up in Ukraine with a Jewish mother and a Russian father. But the advent of freedom and perestroika in the mid-1980s "only worsened the condition that I was in, as well as the condition of all other Jews," she said in testimony during her asylum case.

"Those extremist organizations which previously did not have the right of free speech and had to act covertly…had an open forum…They were announcing openly that Ukraine should be freed of Jews."

Korablina lost her job in 1990 when an ultranationalist manager took over at her plant. "Basically, all [those laid off] were Jewish," she testified.

The anti-Semitism grew violent after Korablina got a new job with a Jewish employer. In October 1993, Korablina watched as three men came to the office, beat her employer and demanded money, claiming that, as a Jew, he was exploiting Ukrainian resources. Employees called the police, who never came.

The extortion continued on a monthly basis, and Korablina informed a friend in the municipal city hall. He said he would try to help — but he soon disappeared without a trace.

Korablina testified that she began receiving phone calls and letters threatening to kill her, saying that she, too, could disappear if she asked for help. One day, two thugs found her alone, tied her up in a chair, placed a noose around her neck and hit her on the head. They stated that her Russian last name couldn't conceal her Jewish origins. She didn't report these incidents, testifying in her deportation hearing that the police weren't interested in protecting Jews and that she feared for her life if she complained.

In September 1994, the office where she worked was ransacked and painted with Stars of David. Soon after, Korablina's employer disappeared.

That incident convinced Korablina to leave the country. She came to the United States and applied for asylum. Her husband and daughter, who remained behind, were beaten and threatened with comments such as "your kike wife won't be able to hide for long."

"It's obvious that this case shouldn't have gotten that far," said Joseph Rose, Korablina's Los Angeles attorney. "The INS is not supposed to fight a case that's meritorious."

Korablina, who speaks little English, can stay in the United States permanently, said Rose. She plans to file a petition to bring her husband here. Korablina's daughter, Irene Cimbal, testified at her mother's asylum hearing here, but Rose was not certain whether Cimbal is still in the United States.

Rose, who has represented "quite a few" Jewish asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union, agreed with his client that grassroots anti-Semitism has become worse since the fall of the former Soviet Union. "This [case] is probably a little bit unusual in terms of the severity," he said. But "it continues to be an ongoing problem."

Anthony Norwood, the Department of Justice attorney representing the INS in the Korablina case, said he could not comment, referring questions to the Department of Justice press office, which referred questions to the INS.

INS spokesman Andrew Lluberes said that the agency never comments on asylum claims and that he was not familiar with Korablina's case.

"I would say the case received all due process," he said, after hearing that the case was denied by an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals. Asked about INS standards for granting asylum, he said that reviews are "case by case."

He also noted that immigration judges work for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is a separate agency from the INS, and that the two agencies review different categories of asylum cases.