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Years After Borders Open, Russian Jews Rethink Staying Home

Emigration: A groundswell of anti- Semitism is giving pause to many who chose to remain during mass departures of the early '90s.

January 31, 1999|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

There are a handful who win the U.S. "diversity lottery," designed to ensure that immigrants to the United States represent diverse ethnic and national backgrounds.

Then there are those who are technically nonimmigrants, but who have a good chance of being issued resident papers in the United States. These include Russians who start businesses in the United States as well as the largest emigrant category of all--refugees.

More than 7,000 refugees from Russia were admitted to the United States in 1996, the last year for which figures are available. Many were admitted under an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that grants refugee status to persecuted religious groups--and especially Jews--from the former Soviet Union.

"You have to look at the U.S. admission policy toward Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union as a legacy of the Cold War," said Arthur Helton, director of migration programs for the Open Society, a nonprofit research organization funded by financier George Soros.

Helton said he doesn't oppose the admission of Russian Jews to the United States, but believes they haven't, in recent years, needed the protection that refugee status normally implies.

That might be changing, he conceded. But in the meantime, he finds the refugee program "a bit hypocritical."

It may be getting tougher, though. Many Russian applicants are turned away for failing to prove they are persecuted. Daniel Retter, a New York lawyer who handles many Russian refugee cases, said that he believes the interview process in Moscow is getting much more adversarial and that applicants are being rejected who appear to meet the criteria of the Lautenberg amendment.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, Barbara Francis, said the agency is seeing more fraud in refugee applications. "However, we apply the same standards as always," she said.

Among Retter's current clients is Levit, whose application for refugee status was rejected despite seemingly compelling claims of anti-Semitic persecution.

Levit is frustrated, but determined to keep trying. He thought of moving to Israel, but decided the United States would be a less alien culture. Besides, he knows a bit of English, but no Hebrew.

As he looks at the situation in Russia, he sees only trouble on the horizon.

"I know the story of fascism in Germany," he said. "I see the smoke of Auschwitz here."

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