“Understanding U.S. Refugee Policy”: HIAS, the Personal, and the Political

This post originally appeared as a talk presented at the ART Symposium in New York City on October 20.

While HIAS leadership was influential in shaping and advocating for immigration policy reform, HIAS’ Communications Department was busy attending to the personal side of these political machinations.

United States refugee policy is shaped to correspond with U.S. foreign policy interests. This creates a legislative reality in which some refugees are welcomed, while the rest are excluded in all but name. In the case of Soviet Jewish refugees in the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. refugee policy worked in their favor.

With restrictions somewhat eased, HIAS created publications specifically to explain U.S. refugee policy to prospective Russian Jewish refugees. One such publication is a 1992 pamphlet titled “Understanding U.S. Refugee policy,” printed in English and Russian.

understanding-us-refugee-policyPamphlet cover in both language editions; Roberta Elliott headed the HIAS Communications department when this pamphlet was released.

The pamphlet clearly outlines the steps necessary to apply to emigrate to the United States as a refugee. Though the restrictions were somewhat relaxed, it was still a complex process. For example, one of the opening paragraphs reads, “Under present guidelines of the U. S. refugee program, certain categories of people within the former Soviet Union (Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics and members of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Churches) are identified as likely targets of persecution. If you are a member of one of these designated groups AND if you have a close relative in the U. S., you will be granted priority in the processing of your application for refugee status and in the scheduling of your interview at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.”

It details what, in the eyes of US immigration law, constitutes a “close relative,” and outlines policy exceptions. It explains the two components of the application process–a Preliminary Questionnaire to provide biographical information, and an Affidavit of Relationship to prove relationships between the prospective immigrant and their US relatives–and explains why these steps were put into place.

Through the publication and distribution of this pamphlet, the HIAS Communications Department was able to take its Executives’ lobbying and influence, and bring those politics down to the individual level, empowering those who may have otherwise been shut out.

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