2,000 Syrian Jewish emigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens

WASHINGTON — A small group of Syrian Jews is looking to make a big splash. The Sephardic Voter's League, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based organization of about 250, has launched a petition drive to make U.S. citizenship possible for 2,000 Syrian Jews who live in legal limbo.

Its prime target audience: the top four presidential candidates.

"I don't know how to get a bill passed, but if enough people ask for it, it can happen," said the league's treasurer, Maurice Hedaya. Especially if those people include Vice President Al Gore, former Sen. Bill Bradley, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.

It all goes back to the Syrian-Jewish exodus in 1992. As Hedaya describes it, 4,000 Syrian Jews were allowed to leave their country, thanks to pressure from then-President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad let them go with a variety of visas. However, their status prevented some from applying for U.S. citizenship and receiving federal benefits.

"Some people have been granted citizenship, some have received green cards, but some are still stuck in the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] process," said Serena Torrey, press secretary to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who serves the Brooklyn area where many of the Syrian immigrants live.

Hedaya tells of a group called Bikur Cholim that helps provide for those struggling with illness in this community. "When they get older, they can't get any federal benefits," such as Medicaid, "since they don't get a green card."

In place of the green card, Torrey said, many have a special stamp in their visas that gives them legal status but no access to government benefits.

The league's petition calls on the candidates to work with Congress to pass special legislation that would change the status of the 2,000 Syrian immigrants to permanent resident aliens, and thus make them eligible for U.S. citizenship.

Hedaya claims to have secured 2,000 to 3,000 signatures already. He and a handful of other volunteers have been holding fund-raisers, political rallies and working with local synagogues to raise additional monies and visibility.

The group is now wrapping up its petition drive, and plans are underway to copy, bind into books and distribute the petitions to the four presidential candidates.

"We're trying to get a voice," said Hedaya, "to teach our people to vote."

Meanwhile, Weiner is trying another approach to the Syrians' plight, as well as that of other immigrants like them.

"There needs to be a higher number of asylees that we grant green cards to. The 10,000 a year that's the cap in the current law — whether from Syria or anywhere else — is simply not sufficient," he said.

He is drafting legislation that would boost the number of people granted green cards each year.