Soviet Emigres to U.S. in ‘89 May Hit 60,000

Times Staff Writer

As Soviet authorities continue to relax restrictions on emigration, the United States is preparing to accept 50,000 to 60,000 of those who leave the Soviet Union in 1989, according to U.S. officials.

The officials said the record influx will result from recent decisions by the Reagan Administration that effectively guarantee admission to the United States for about two-thirds of the Soviet citizens who, at the present rate of emigration, are likely to receive permission to leave next year.

Current U.S. plans for 1989 provide for the acceptance of 25,000 immigrants, mostly Armenians and Jews, as “refugees,” a legal status that will provide most with at least partial resettlement assistance and permanent residence after one year.


In addition, 2,000 people a month will be admitted to the United States this year direct from Moscow on a “humanitarian parole” authorized by the attorney general.

And several hundred more Soviet emigrants are likely to be admitted on a similar basis each month from Rome and Vienna, the principal processing centers for Soviet Jews who choose to go to the United States rather than Israel.

In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow expects to issue more than 1,000 regular immigrant visas--twice as many as this year and another record--to Soviet citizens going to the United States to join relatives who had emigrated earlier.

“We are committed to accepting 50,000-plus,” a U.S. official here said, “and the ultimate figure for 1989 could be much closer to 60,000 people. . . . From a country even the size of the Soviet Union, that is a major change in our immigration pattern.”

30,000 in 1988

The final tally for 1988 is expected to show more than 30,000 admissions, including Soviet Jews who officially leave for Israel but instead go to the United States.

Total Soviet emigration, mostly of Armenians, Jews and ethnic Germans, is currently running at more than 7,000 people a month, according to Soviet officials. That flow will probably increase as some people who have relatives abroad but who have been hesitant about applying to leave are encouraged by the new, streamlined process of handling emigration requests.

Soviet emigration reached a peak in 1979 when 51,330 Jews left the country, according to the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Commission for Migration. Armenian and German emigration was also high in the late 1970s but nowhere near the number now.

“Within a few months, we will not have an emigration problem any longer,” a Soviet official predicted last month, “but you in the West will have an immigration problem as people take you at your word and ask to move to your country.”

The new policies will make the United States the largest recipient of Soviet emigrants, although West Germany received more than 35,000 ethnic Germans in 1988 and expects to take in more than 40,000 in both 1989 and 1990.

Soviet authorities recently relaxed government regulations that for many years had restricted the emigration of scientists, engineers, former soldiers and others considered to have had access to state secrets. Last month, 120 Jewish “refuseniks” who had been denied permission to emigrate for a number of years were told that they would be allowed to leave.

Some Soviet officials are now suggesting in human rights discussions that the flow could be increased even further if a proposed law on emigration permits Soviet citizens to leave the country without first receiving at least a nominal invitation from a family member abroad to settle with them.

More Soviet Jews, for example, are now being permitted to emigrate directly to the United States--where more than 90% of all Jewish emigrants end up, according to U.S. officials--rather than declaring their intention to go to Israel and then changing their destination in Rome or Vienna.

Signs of a shift are also appearing in the visa applications received by the U.S. Embassy here. From June to September, 95% of the applications came from Armenians, according to embassy officials. But in recent months, that figure has dropped to about 65%, with Jews accounting for 26% and Russians and members of the Baltic nationalities for the rest.

Another change has been the recent willingness of Soviet authorities to permit those intending to emigrate to approach the U.S. Embassy before they file their first papers.

“Free emigration, as we would define the term, may never come to the Soviet Union,” a West European diplomat said, recalling that his country, like the United States, has pressed hard for increased emigration in various human rights talks with Moscow. “Still, the volume of Soviet citizens leaving and settling elsewhere is getting to be such that this is starting to diminish as an issue in our discussions.

“The challenge to us from the Soviets now is whether we will accept all these people. . . . We argue, of course, that the right of emigration does not imply an equal right of immigration, but we sound rather feeble when we say that.”

U.S. permission to go to America, a procedure that took three to four weeks in May or June, can now stretch up to a year, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. Embassy here has a backlog of 13,000 visa applications that grows by 2,000 to 3,000 a month. And the Armenian earthquake on Dec. 7 is already bringing more applicants to the embassy.

Emigration to the United States was partially suspended July 1 when the State Department ran out of money to pay for the transportation and resettlement of thousands of Armenians, who were entitled to such federal assistance as soon as they were classified as refugees.

Jews, who are granted Soviet exit visas on the basis of their declarations that they are emigrating to Israel, have continued to be admitted to the United States through the Rome and Vienna processing centers.

Not ‘Refugees’

For the first time, however, inspectors from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have classified about 200 Jews not as refugees fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union but as potential immigrants wanting to go to the United States for a better life. All were nevertheless granted special status to allow them to go to the United States immediately.

This and related issues have been hotly debated within the Reagan Administration for the past year, with the arguments colored by conflicting views of developments in the Soviet Union as well as by the practical problems in handling the growing outflow of emigrants.

The new policies were described by U.S. officials as largely a transitional program--measures to ensure that everyone given Soviet permission to emigrate would be admitted to the United States without the usual long delays, but also to initiate a shift from the automatic granting of refugee status to every Soviet immigrant.

While many U.S. officials continue to hold that anyone declaring his intention to emigrate from the Soviet Union--a right insisted upon by the United States--is effectively alienating himself from his own society and thus subject to persecution and entitled to refugee status, others say that U.S. policies should be shaped to the evolving situation here.

“Legally, to grant refugee status, we are required to make a specific, individual determination on whether a person has a reasonable fear of persecution on the basis of his race, his religion, his political beliefs and so on,” one U.S. official commented. “In fact, we said that anybody leaving the Soviet Union is a refugee by definition. . . .

“The fiscal realities--we did not have enough money to pay everyone’s transport and other costs--have made us tighten up our approach and make those legally required individual determinations.”

The program for 1989 was drawn up in part on the basis of the federal and private funds available for refugee resettlement and on projections of the likely number of visa applications, based on requests over recent months, when they have flowed into the U.S. Embassy at the rate of about 200 a day.

Processing of the backlog of applications under the new policies will begin next Tuesday, according to embassy officials, but delays of six to eight months may still occur.

“We don’t know how many people are out there who want to leave,” said one embassy officer, asking not to be quoted by name. “We were told, for example, that 80,000 Armenians want to go to the United States, but we know if that many do wind up going over a number of years that they will want to bring family members later. And nobody really knows how many Soviet Jews want to emigrate.”

Some experienced U.S. officials believe, however, that after an initial surge in emigration, the trend will drop off sharply if Moscow establishes a policy of free emigration.