IN a separate category from immigrants are refugees from political persecution - seekers of safety and freedom who, in growing numbers, are arriving in the US from Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Soviet bloc, and now China. America has always been hospitable to those fleeing oppression, but as their ranks grow, the US faces hard policy choices. Under Soviet restrictions, the flow of people from the USSR to the US has been a trickle. For years, Washington has pressed Moscow to relax its emigration laws, especially for Jews eager to move to the US or Israel. And the US has accorded refugee status to Soviet Jews largely without regard to their individual situations.
Suddenly, Moscow appears to be scrapping most of its emigration barriers. A law being drafted not only would open the exit door to Jews, but also would permit many other Soviet citizens to leave for nonpolitical reasons. For the US, the Soviet-emigration trickle could swell into a flood. The US Embassy in Moscow expects 100,000 visa requests this year.
US officials say they expect to grant most requests. Many applicants who can't demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution - the standard for refugees - will be admitted as sponsored parolees.
It's impossible not to sympathize with Soviet citizens yearning to start a new life, and the US, having upbraided the USSR on the issue for so long, cannot in good conscience bar its doors. Even so, new conditions prompt rethinking about long-term US policy toward Soviet 'emigr'es.
Should there be, for instance, a presumption that Soviet Jews are persecuted, or should they be required to prove it? The US removed such a presumption last year, but a House bill would restore it for Soviet Jews and evangelicals. Should the US do more to encourage Jews leaving the USSR to settle in Israel rather than America? And is it fair, or in the US interest, to favor Soviet visa applicants over those from other countries?
The US no longer has the luxury of deferring such questions, difficult as they may be.