Driven by dreams of a better life overseas and fears of impending collapse at home, more than 1 million Soviet citizens have applied to immigrate to America as refugees, a wish that U.S. officials say only a fraction of them will be granted.
“We simply haven’t been able to keep up with the backlog of applications,” Bob Cole, project director at a Rosslyn, Va., processing center where the Soviets’ applications are opened and given a first screening, said Tuesday. “All of a sudden, the volume of mail in the Rosslyn post office went way up.”
Unless there is a drastic change in U.S. immigration policy, the great majority of those whose applications are being processed by Cole and his 70 employees will be disappointed. “Since there are only 50,000 entries allotted to Soviets in the refugee program, there’s no way a massive number can immigrate to the U.S.,” said Sandra N. Humphrey, U.S. consul general in Moscow.
However, the huge number of people here who want to leave is another sign of the crisis affecting Soviet society, and officials are bracing for an even bigger surge when a new law liberalizing access to passports and streamlining departure procedures is passed by the national legislature at its fall session beginning Sept. 10.
“The prognosis that we made last year, that, by the end of this year, 500,000 to 600,000 people could apply for one-way visas, is being borne out by statistics,” Col. Rudolf A. Kuznetsov, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Office of Visas and Permits, which oversees immigration and emigration matters, said Tuesday.
The numbers Kuznetsov and his aides disclosed at a news conference were proof of how people here are seizing one more right awarded them by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--the right to vote with their feet. Of the 816,000 Soviet citizens who have emigrated since World War II, more than a third, or 344,000, departed in the two-year period of 1988-89 alone, Kuznetsov said.
In the first seven months of 1990, an additional 233,680 people departed, which was more than twice the figure in the same period in the previous year, he said.
Foreign travel, once a privilege allowed only to Bolshoi ballerinas or trusted apparatchiks, also has boomed. Last year, 2.5 million people went abroad on vacation or personal business. That is 20 times the 1986 total, a mammoth increase but one that will not shock anyone who has battled the teeming crowds at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport lately.
What the Soviet press has dubbed the “leak of minds,” or brain drain, has begun to worry many influential people here, because it coincides with Gorbachev’s campaign for a modernized market-style economy that in theory will reward the best and the brightest.
Citing estimates by his agency, commonly known by its Russian-language acronym UVIR, Kuznetsov said the Soviet Union could lose as many as 1 million specialists and 1.2 million highly skilled workers to emigration in the near term. Other Soviet officials and publications estimate that as many as 20 million people will depart.
The United States is a preferred destination. In the first seven months of 1990, 132,400 people in theory received permission from Kuznetsov’s agency to go to Israel, but many headed instead for the United States. Only 5,300 people sought and received permission from UVIR to depart directly for America, he said.
The story on the U.S. end is strikingly different. Since Oct. 1, when the Rosslyn-based center opened, about 500,000 applications from Soviet citizens, each containing on average the names of three applicants, have been received, Cole said.
The applications are sent to the Rosslyn center, which is under contract to the State Department to process them, as part of a refugee assistance program aimed at Soviet nationals and citizens of other countries “who have been persecuted or believe they will be persecuted because of their origins, beliefs or religion,” Consul General Humphrey explained.
Such criteria eliminate many Soviet applications automatically.
“Although most of the applicants could live a lot better if they went to the U.S., so could most of the world,” Humphrey said. In the great majority of cases, she said, the would-be emigrants’ motivation is overwhelmingly economic: to guarantee themselves and their children a better life.
What the State Department employees who also work in the Rosslyn center seek are applicants who fit certain “profiles” of groups that can justify the fear of persecution, including Soviet Jews, Pentecostalists and Armenians who fled ethnic bloodshed in the Transcaucasus. People who make it through the early screening are interviewed in Moscow to learn more.
Last year, Jews were the largest single subgroup among the 50,000 Soviet citizens to be finally granted refugee status by U.S. government agencies, Humphrey said. However, there are now so many applications, she said, that “if applicants have no relations in the United States, their chances of getting an interview are very slim.”
When the embassy began handing out the refugee-status applications last fall, thousands of frantic people clogged the sidewalk in front of the building in what looked like a slow-motion riot. Demand reached such a peak that, at one point, the forms were hawked by black marketeers for 15 rubles, or the equivalent of $24.
Another 25,000 slots in theory could be taken by Soviet nationals as pure “immigrants” in U.S. jargon, that is, paying their own way and not expecting any government support, unlike refugees. But few apply or meet the criteria. “Last year, we did fewer than 1,000 emigration visas here,” Humphrey said.
Under current rules, for a Soviet citizen to travel, he must present an invitation from overseas and apply at UVIR for what is known as an “exit visa,” a process that can take months. According to Interior Ministry officials, 7 million to 8 million Soviet citizens are expected to journey abroad in the first 12 months after the new law abrogates those requirements.
In consequence, UVIR looks with trepidation at the looming onslaught of applications for passports. “We will need to triple the number of our employees,” Kuznetsov said.