U.S. Closes its Doors

As new waves of persecution press in on Jews and evangelical Christians in the former Soviet Union, the United States has become less likely to grant their petitions for refugee status, according to immigrant rights groups.Some 41 percent of Jewish applicants were denied refugee status in the last year -- a striking contrast with the four percent turned away in 1996. For Christian evangelical applicants, the denial rate climbed from 11 percent in 1996 to 48 percent in fiscal year 1998.These figures come from the Washington Processing Center, a joint State Department/Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS ) bureau that screens candidates applying for immigration.INS spokesman Dan Kane explains all applicants for refugee status are being scrutinized more closely since passage of the Immigration Act of 1996, which provided harsh penalties for illegal immigrants.The soaring rate of denial for those within the former Soviet Union, according to Kathleen Thompson, director of the INS Refugee Division, reflects the petitioners' failure of to "assert a credible basis for concern (of persecution) through citing cases of discrimination or mistreatment."The story of Gena and Luba Magidin provides a striking example. The couple fled Belarus after their home was smeared several times with anti-Semitic graffiti. But Luba has been unable to secure refugee status for her parents despite the fact that harassment and physical attacks have continued."The embassy officials in Moscow said they couldn't be considered refugees because we didn't provide enough evidence that they were the target of anti-Semitism," she said.Bill Cohen, President of the Center for Human Rights Advocacy, based in Boulder, Colorado, calls such actions "unconscionable. There is unmistakable evidence of Jews increasingly being denied refugee status at the very time when there is a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism within the former Soviet Union."He points to legislation passed by Congress in 1989 (the Lautenberg Amendment) designed expressly to give refugee status to Jews and Christian evangelicals living in the former Soviet Union with no requirement to demonstrate a specific act of persecution.Christian evangelicals have closed ranks with Jewish groups on this issue. World Relief, a Christian evangelical advocacy organization headquartered in Nyack, New York, says discrimination against Pentecostal, Baptist, Word of Life, and other minority Christian groups has risen sharply ever since Russia's Law on Religion was enacted in 1997. The law restricts the publication and solicitation of minority religious material, and bans Jehovah's Witnesses and new religious communities."We're getting report after report that illustrates that Christians, along with Jewish groups, and other minority groups in the former Soviet Union have been increasingly scapegoated as the political and economic situation worsens," says Don Hammond, Senior vice-president of World Relief.Thompson of the INS attributes the upsurge of denials among Christian applicants to "a higher element of fraudulent claims . . . especially among people who have recently converted to Christianity and perhaps without any sincere religious convictions."She notes that the INS is offering "parole" status to applicants who submit sincere claims but don't qualify as refugees -- 38 percent of Jewish applicants and 25 percent of Christian evangelical applicants were so treated in 1998.But parole status is only available for refugees with families living in the U.S. who can sponsor them. The Magidins both hold steady jobs in San Francisco, but -- as they must support his parents here -- may not have enough income to qualify as sponsors for her parents.Of an estimated two million Russian immigrants who have arrived since 1989, 85 percent are Jewish, and many are still struggling to extricate their families from an increasingly dangerous environment.As anti-Jewish statements are heard more and more often in Russia's parliament, and neo-Nazi parades and attacks on Jewish homes and synagogues increase, immigration issues have become a rallying cry for the new Soviet-Americans. Although this community is still struggling to find its voice, activists promise that political activity will dramatically increase if the INS rate of denial doesn't sharply decrease.


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