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US Open-Door Policy Shuts Slightly

Bush plan to close refugee processing operations in Rome and Vienna is sparking controversy. SOVIET EMIGRATION

IN the words of an old proverb, one has to be careful what one wishes for. One might get it. Using trade benefits and other carrots, the United States has long prodded the Soviet Union to adopt a more generous emigration policy. Now that Moscow for its own reasons has done so, the Bush administration is putting new limits on the US open door.

The resulting controversy centers less on numbers than on the questions of where and how more Soviet refugees will be admitted.

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The administration will raise the ceiling on Soviet refugees admitted from 43,500 to 50,000 during the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Though some in Congress say the total should be higher, the hike is generally applauded.

Much more controversial is the Bush plan to close by Oct. 1 its Soviet-refugee processing operations in Rome and Vienna, confining the job to the US Embassy in Moscow. Also drawing fire is a policy practiced by US authorities over the last year that requires individual Soviet refugees to prove a ``well-founded fear of persecution,'' even though they may be Soviet Jews or Evangelical Christians, groups historically considered refugees by definition.

The administration insists that the 1980 Refugee Act requires a case-by-case review of applications. Critics agree but contend that much of the burden of proof over the last year has been shifted unfairly to the applicant. They point for evidence to the hefty backlog of cases - at least 40,000 in Moscow and 30,000 in Rome - and to a large number of applicants refused refugee status.

To ease the way for legitimate Soviet refugees to enter the US, Rep. Bruce Morrison (D) of Connecticut has drafted a bill to make refugee status virtually automatic for Soviet Jews, Evangelical Christians, practicing Ukrainian Catholics, and other such persecuted minorities. The bill passed the House in July. A variation has passed the Senate.

The administration says that because the Soviets have granted more exit visas to a wider variety of Russians, the US needs to monitor individual cases more carefully. ``As the numbers grew, it became clear that the Soviets weren't letting out just people who had fought for years [to get out] or who were rebellious,'' explains a State Department source.

Under current plans Soviet refugees will account for well over one-third of the 126,000 refugees the US expects to admit in fiscal 1990. The administration says it wants to be sure that refugee needs in other parts of the world are not neglected. In response to Moscow's new openness, however, the administration is proposing a new ``special immigrant'' category that would reserve another 150,000 slots for Russian applicants.

Yet the administration insists that budget constraints and a need for greater control over the refugee flow require centralization of the admissions operation in Moscow. Over the last 20 years most Soviet refugees have come to the US via Rome and Vienna after reaching those cities on Israeli exit visas. The cost of keeping these Russians fed and housed during the wait, however, hit a high of $34 million this year. US refugee coordinator Jewel Lafontant told Congress recently the Italian and Austrian processing centers had become ``inherently unmanageable, extremely costly, and ultimately inhumane.''

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Critics of administration policy say the focus with numbers and dollars is getting in the way of US moral obligations.

``We need to ensure that refugees get first consideration,'' says Donald Hammond, a spokesman for World Relief, the refugee-assistance arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. ``There are a lot of ways to work that out. We should not be closing the door, forcing refugees to live within the society that they're trying to escape from - that's what the administration's decision is doing.''

``We should call them as we see them - rejecting people who are in fact refugees because you don't have numbers [slots] for them destroys the credibility of the process,'' adds Mr. Morrison. ``When you run out of numbers, people ought to be allowed to wait in line and make choices about other destination countries.''

Some critics are skeptical that Moscow can work well as a processing center. They question the freedom of Russians to tell their story confidentially to US officials without reprisal. They point to recent reports of applicants paying bribes to Soviet guards for better places in line. Voluntary agencies are concerned that, given the current backlog of cases in Moscow, the refugee flow of Jews and Pentacostals will decline. And they also question the assumption that the current relaxation of Soviet emigration barriers will last.

Still, Morrison concedes that the effort is probably ``worth a try.'' He predicts, however, that the October transition period is likely to prove chaotic. The National Security Council, he says, pushed the State Department to begin the Moscow plan three months earlier than expected. He says his House immigration subcommittee will be monitoring the process closely.

And the congressman is clearly pleased that the Justice Department has now pledged to review the backlog of cases in Rome and Vienna, including those in which refugee status was rejected.

``It's expected that the overwhelming majority of the cases will probably be approved,'' Morrison says. ``I'd be happy to have my bill passed, but it's worked as a good piece of leverage in its present condition.''

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