Feature Stories

End of an era? Jews from FSU urged to immigrate… before door to the U.S. closes

By Cindy Mindell ~

HARTFORD – Twenty years ago, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey sponsored a bill in Congress that would grant special refugee status to those fleeing religious and other persecution in what was then the Soviet Union, Indochina, and Iran.
The Lautenberg Amendment, later the Specter Amendment sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, further opened the gates to Jews wishing to emigrate to the U.S. from those regions. It followed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, passed as part of the 1974 Trade Act, and named for its major co-sponsors Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik. The bill was intended to affect U.S. trade relations with countries with non-market economies — originally, countries of the Communist bloc — that restrict freedom of emigration and other human rights. The amendment was passed at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement in the U.S., and is widely believed to be a response to the U.S.S.R.’s “diploma taxes” levied on Jews and others attempting to emigrate.
“For an émigré, refugee status is a more secure and viable option than immigrant status,” says Bob Fishman, executive director of JFACT (Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut). The law designated thousands of slots for Jews in the Soviet Union, resulting in mass migration in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The law designated thousands of slots for Jews in the Soviet Union, resulting in mass migration in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

Under the two amendments, renewed regularly by Congress, hundreds of thousands of Jews were able to leave the Soviet Union before and after its dissolution, relocating to Israel and to communities across the U.S. In Connecticut, Jewish Federations and Jewish Family Service (JFS) agencies have been involved in the resettlement and acculturation endeavor, spearheaded and coordinated nationally by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in New York.
By the late ‘90s, applications for immigration through the Lautenberg/Specter Amendment had fallen to a trickle. Especially after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., governments of those countries have applied for trade status with the U.S., claiming that they do meet the travel and emigration requirements. Though there is some support to extend the Lautenberg/Specter Amendment, both amendments are set to expire in September.
Fishman recently learned of the deadline from two former refugees resettled in the ‘80s by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. The two informed Fishman that the Russian press was reporting on the impending expiration, and they expressed concern that it would be more difficult for their relatives to leave what is now known as the Former Soviet Union (FSU).
Fishman contacted HIAS and discovered that its Connecticut affiliates, the Jewish Family Service agencies, are no longer formally active in the resettlement movement, having closed their programs due to lack of demand. The closest agency still active in refugee resettlement and citizenship services is Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, in Springfield.
With the window soon closing on Jewish refugee immigration from the FSU, Fishman proposed to HIAS that JFS of Western Mass. be engaged to help process applications from Connecticut families who wished to sponsor their relatives.
“We are very happy to work with HIAS and do anything we can to help, especially in reuniting families,” says Bob Marmor, president and CEO of JFS of Western Mass. since the ‘70s. The agency helped resettle some 1,000 former Soviet émigrés in the region, whom they continue to support, along with refugees from other countries. Marmor explains that the agency’s commitment to refugee services is embedded in its mission to welcome the stranger.
Like Marmor, the directors of the JFS agencies in Connecticut have offered to help ease the process,
Fishman says. Several include native Russian-speakers on staff.
In addition to JFS of Western Mass., Connecticut residents can also work through state refugee agencies in their respective counties: Catholic Refugee and Migration Services (Greater Hartford), International Institute (Fairfield County), and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (Greater New Haven).
According to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), there are more than one million Jews residing in the FSU. It is widely believed among the resettlement community that all those who wanted to leave have already done so. In some cases, family members chose to stay behind for a variety of reasons, and are now finally in a position to leave. “While Jews in the FSU may apply to emigrate and travel abroad, if they want the value offered by refugee status in the U.S., HIAS recommends they proceed with applications now,” Fishman says. “If the Lautenberg/Specter Amendment is not renewed, it will be very difficult to come here as a refugee, and more difficult to prove religious persecution when synagogues are allowed to function freely and the KGB has been abolished.”
“I think that everyone who wanted to leave left a long time ago, but there are a lot of people who stayed behind because they couldn’t decide what to do,” says Raya Katsen, refugee resettlement coordinator at JFS of Western Mass. Katsen emigrated with her husband and child from the U.S.S.R. in 1978 and has worked at JFS for nearly a decade.
Katsen is working with a family in the Springfield community who emigrated from Russia to Israel, where they won visas through the U.S. Green Card Lottery Program and relocated to Massachusetts. Before they left Russia, they urged the wife’s parents and brother to join them, but the parents wanted to stay and the brother’s serious health issues made travel difficult. Over the years of separation, the wife’s father died and her brother’s condition worsened, and there is no one left in Russia to provide care for them.
“They could have come a long time ago but they didn’t want to and now there is no alternative,” says Katsen, who is helping the family through the application process before the September deadline.
Katsen says that an applicant must be “lucky enough” to be selected for an interview with U.S. immigration officials. Immigration law, even for refugees, requires that an American citizen show financial ability and willingness to sponsor the newcomer.
Fishman says that there are still Jews in the FSU who fear religious persecution, despite the more tolerant climate. One of the former refugees who contacted him reported that Lubavitcher relatives in the FSU are experiencing bias.
Even for a refugee, the emigration process can take two or three years, says Mohamud Mohamed, New American program director at JFS of Western Mass.
Fishman says he can’t overstate the urgency of the situation. “If there are Jews in the FSU who want to get out, this is the time to do it.”
For more information: JFACT, (860) 727-5770 / jfact@mcmgmt.com

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