One excellent and concise source of information in the HIAS archives at AJHS is the run of Annual Reports, from 1912 to 2003. Many of these reports will be accessible online by the end of 2018. See also Janine’s recent post about annual reports, which includes many of the most interesting covers.
I was recently looking for information in the 1989 Annual Report, and came across a section titled, “Denials of Refugee Status by INS”. I found I was curious about the issues in play 29 years ago that posed challenges to the work that HIAS has always done – providing safe refuge for those fleeing unsafe conditions in their home country.
“INS” is short for Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency in the Department of Justice from 1940 to 2003, according to Wikipedia.
This section turns out to be part of a multi-page narrative about the growing focus for HIAS in the 1980s – Soviet Jewish migration and resettlement, which greatly increased with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The lengthy Introduction to this Annual Report deals at length with the effects of a huge flood of Soviet Jews suddenly able to leave the Soviet Union. Most of these sudden refugees departed for Israel and the United States, and HIAS was involved with both groups at their processing centers in Europe – at headquarters in Geneva, and at the HIAS offices in Vienna and Rome.
In discussing staff changes during this very busy year, the Introduction includes this:
In New York, it was an especially stressful year for Assistant Executive Vice President Phillip Saperia. In addition to his responsibilities for staff administration and for expediting the installation of the new information storage and retrieval system, he struggled throughout the year with the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] to effect a reduction in the rate of refugee visa ‘denials’ in Rome.
The numbers tell part of the story, its unexpected magnitude:
At first, during the early months of 1989, those leaving [the Soviet Union] formed a steady stream flowing westward; by the end of the year the stream would become a torrent. By Dec. 31, 71,000 Jews had left the Soviet Union, surpassing by some 20,000 the previous high watermark in 1979.
The numbers caught everyone off guard … the ceiling [for the number of refugees permitted to enter the US] is determined from the previous year’s numbers … In October 1988, when the federal fiscal year (FFY) 1989 … ceiling was signed, it allowed 18,000 Soviet Jews to enter the US as refugees; by June, it was necessary for the Administration to amend that figure to 30,000. Then in October, the beginning of FFY90, the quota was set at 40,000. By December 31, nearly 37,000 Soviet Jews had been admitted to the US as refugees.
Since the 1960s, HIAS had registered each family in Vienna when they arrived from Moscow, and guided them through the application process with the INS in Rome, where they applied for refugee status. The sudden increase in numbers of clients threw everyone into a growing backlog. Was the INS increasing their denials of refugee status as a way to work more quickly through the backlog?
This situation was further exacerbated by the most troubling development of all: rejection of refugee status by the INS for an increasing number of Soviet Jewish applicants. The situation of ‘denials’ had been developing gradually since the fall of 1988 when in one day the INS in Rome had rejected six applications … Later, when there were 11 rejections on another day, it was clear that this was a policy decision rather than the vagaries of one officer.
How did HIAS deal with the INS on this tricky issue? To be continued in a later post.