Rejection of refugee status in 1988 and 1989 was thought by some to be related “to the continuing US budget crisis which refugee immigration and resettlement costs were exacerbating”, according to the Annual Report (page 10). Here is how the problem developed and how HIAS worked to overcome the hurdles it presented:
“All Soviet Jews historically had been admitted as refugees based on conditions inside the Soviet Union that were universally understood as adverse to Jews.” According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1989, the term ‘refugee’ means any person who is outside their country of citizenship and needs the protection of another country, such as the United States, “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality,” among other protected groups.
Attorney General Edwin Meese, head of the Justice Department under President Reagan, and therefore overseeing the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], requested that INS officers adjudicate Soviet Jews on an individual basis, ignoring many years of precedent in dealing with Soviet Jews. Meese offered them “parole in the public interest” if denied refugee status. This allowed Soviet Jews to enter the US legally, but denied them access to “the social assistance programs that accompany refugee status.” In addition an affidavit of support was required from a US sponsor.
HIAS reacted quickly, meeting in January 1989 with other Jewish communal leaders and then joined forces with the new Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; outside counsel wrote a legal memorandum with which HIAS and other immigration agencies could clearly explain their case to the new White House staff and members of Congress. Support in Congress helped convince Thornburgh by the end of the fiscal year to reverse the Meese directive.
Denials had continued to grow over the first 6 months of 1989, and HIAS modified its processing operations, but it was determined “that only a fundamental reorientation of HIAS staff and an equally fundamental rearrangement of its systems would … significantly [reduce] … the denials.”
“It became clear that HIAS needed to retrain a staff which had never dealt with anything but a friendly and sympathetic INS.”
HIAS worked as quickly as possible, within the system and the policies and laws that had changed without taking into consideration the effect on those seeking refuge in the United States. Denials spiked in March 1989 and eventually, after legislative corrections, staff retraining and a 75% increase in worldwide HIAS staff, procedural changes at HIAS, and a large increase in expenses, HIAS was able to “consistently [process] a monthly flow approaching 5,000, reuniting more Jewish refugees with their stateside families than any time since World War II.”