The economy Soviet émigrés leave behind is property called irrational. Consider the economy they enter in the United States as described in an article that recently appeared in the Soviet paper the Independent. “The benefits (in America) are real. Our son attended an excellent private school for which he didn’t pay a cent. Then he went to college for free. . . . The apartment we live in rents for half of what it should normally go for. They say you have to wait on a list for three years for government apartments like these, but there are ways to move ahead on the list. Smarter émigrés will rent their apartments out to dumber newcomers and pocket the difference. . . . My mother-in-law lives in her own (subsidized) apartment and receives a full (U.S.) pension, which surprises even me . . . this is a poor man’s paradise.”

On any day the main Russian emigre newspaper, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, is crammed with advertisements for lawyers and “consultants” hawking advice on how to work the ropes of social services. On some days these ads and appeals from lawyers looking for personal injury suits outnumber the job offerings.

Advertisements such as these are aimed at new immigrants in America and would-be immigrants in the Soviet Union still considering a move to the “poor man’s paradise.” I have watched the growth of this cottage consulting industry in the immigrant community for over ten years and realize it is part of a wider trend in America. However, it also relates directly to the way in which the country handles Soviets desiring to emigrate to the United States.

The Political Refugee Act of 1980 codified in U.S. law various United Nations resolutions that call for refugees—those who have been persecuted or have a “well founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”—to receive special recognition and consideration. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now places fifteen to sixteen million people in that category worldwide. The United States admits a certain number of refugees each year over and above regular immigration quotas. The number of refugees is not subject to any ceiling imposed by immigration law. By definition, the program is intended to provide refuge to those in imminent danger at home who have nowhere else to go.

Initially the Refugee Act was used to get some of our Vietnam War allies out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. Ten years later we still accept some fifty-two thousand Southeast Asians a year as refugees. However, it is the Soviet Union that supplies the largest number of refugees from a single country. This year up to some sixty thousand Soviets will be admitted to the United States as refugees. Refugees from various countries now comprise about 18 percent of our total yearly immigration. In spite of the growth in overall numbers of refugee admissions over the last five years, the total number accepted from Burma, El Salvador, China, Guatemala, and Chile has never exceeded a few dozen per year.

There are some important advantages refugees enjoy over regular immigrants, like a cash allotment and transportation to the United States. Currently money for transportation is handled as an interest-free loan, but it is too early to tell how collectible these loans are. Until this year transportation costs were covered by the United States. Refugees, who are entitled to all welfare programs, are actively encouraged to use Medicaid and other programs like food stamps and Section 8 housing; those of retirement age receive Social Security and Medicare. Sponsoring organizations dispense additional government-funded benefits. The New York Association for New Americans, the largest such organization for Soviet Jews, is like an extension of Health and Human Services run by immigrants. It is described in the immigrant community as a “Soviet-style Mafia.”

Refugees are given an inside track to citizenship and do not have to demonstrate employment or self-sufficiency, which is the case for most other immigrant categories. In theory, immigrant visas are approved only for those unlikely to become a public charge, and an immigrant can be deported if he becomes a “public burden” within five years of arrival. In practice, the courts have diluted the definition of a “public burden.” But when comparing admission as a refugee versus admission as a regular immigrant, nonrefugee immigration overwhelmingly favors individuals with jobs.

The number of Soviets applying for the refugee program is so great that the United States recently narrowed its definition of a refugee to include only those with relatives already here. Thus, Soviet refugees of today will almost always have relatives in the United States—perhaps in-laws or uncles, themselves recent beneficiaries of the resettlement program. A typical nonrefugee immigrant must have an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen. We do not know how many refugees could be admitted to the United States as regular immigrants—either under recently expanded skilled worker categories or because of family ties. It is clear, however, that the regular immigration quota is undersubscribed. This year only three thousand will be admitted as immigrants from the Soviet Union. Refugee status is the designation of choice for those immigrating to America and for those in America who would otherwise have to help with some of the costs.

The Morrison-Lautenberg bill of 1990 establishes a presumption that Jews and Christian evangelicals in the Soviet Union are, as a group, subject to persecution. Accordingly, “Once an individual asserts that he is a member of the covered class and asserts that he has been persecuted or has a fear of persecution that individual shall be deemed a refugee, subject only to whatever countervailing evidence the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] may have or produce to establish that the individual was not persecuted or could not reasonably have a well founded fear of persecution.” Essentially, the refugee quota for the Soviet Union is filled by members of the covered group (with relatives in America) on a first-come, first-served basis. According to the State Department and the INS, eighty to ninety percent of the slots go to Jewish applicants, while most of the balance is awarded to evangelicals. Those who do not meet the Morrison-Lautenberg criteria need not apply.

For an individual seeking to move to America, the process begins with a refugee application obtained from the U.S. embassy or the black market where photocopies are sold. Applications are mailed to Washington for evaluation against the criteria defining a refugee. The processing center in Washington contacts supposed relatives in America to verify the family link claimed on the application. Most refugee applications are weeded out up front for lack of family ties in the United States. After a three to five year wait the applicant is given a ten-minute interview with an INS staffer in the Soviet Union.

If the would-be immigrant is Jewish, and doesn’t want to risk the wait, he may go to Israel. Israel is currently absorbing about one hundred seventy thousand Soviet Jews a year. In Moscow one often hears the complaint among Jews that the Americans and Israelis struck a deal to shunt Jewish immigration away from the United States to Israel. America is the country of choice for the vast majority of Soviet émigrés, including those leaving for Israel. The ten billion dollars in U.S. loan guarantees to underwrite the settlement of Soviet Jews in Israel may be only part of the aid required to keep the migration to that country from becoming a genuine refugee crisis. It seems America will pay for Soviet emigration, whatever direction it takes.

The State Department has estimated the cost for refugee processing in America to be about seventy million dollars for each ten thousand refugees. However, this amount does not include estimates for expenditures on social services required after the refugee has arrived here. Much of this cost is submerged in state expenditures for Medicaid and other welfare programs. According to an unofficial poll conducted by Novoye Russkoye Slovo, among working-age Soviet émigrés one-third are unemployed a year after arrival. Including pensioners in the overall number of new arrivals would mean that 40 percent of Soviet adult immigrants are dependent on various welfare programs a year after arrival. Compared to the actual cost of maintaining a refugee, the seven thousand dollar processing-and-transportation fee is mere bus fare.

Besides spawning bureaucracies to dispense it, public assistance has tilted the demographics of the refugee population away from the characteristics that could make the migration a self-financing process. According to the Health and Human Services Office for Refugee Resettlement, about 20 percent of Soviet refugees are over age 55. By contrast, only 7 percent of nonrefugee immigrants are older than 55. This difference is even more significant than the numbers would seem to suggest. Most elderly immigrants are joining children who are established and who will be able to support them. Older refugees arrive in need of assistance from day one.

During an eight-month tour of the Soviet Union in 1988 I made the acquaintance of several individuals who were planning to emigrate to America. Some talked about the free medical care they would be receiving for problems that could never be addressed at home. One man near retirement age (60 for men, 55 for women in the Soviet Union) said he had heard he would not have to work since he would be receiving a “full U.S. pension” in America. With a few other facts he had determined that within a year he would be able to buy a car, something he could not do in a lifetime of work at home. He was correct, and we never could get past that point in our discussions about the trials and responsibilities of emigration to another country.

Part of immigration policy is analogous to controlling crowds at a train station by posting the schedule of departures and the destination of the train, what the INS calls getting the message “back to the villages.” From the perspective of the Soviet village, the deal being offered resembles an all-expenses-paid vacation to Disneyland. Immigration, even with the freebies, is no picnic, and anyone who does not think beyond the “good life” and 24-hour cable TV is bound for disappointment. Indeed, the prime victim of our policy may be individuals like one of my Soviet friends. He is alone, has no skills, does not speak English, and is planning to immigrate under the nominal sponsorship of a government-funded organization set up to support refugees. If his case is typical, the sponsoring organization will first hear of his existence a week or so before his arrival. His actual guarantor in the United States is the local Health and Human Services Department, an organization abysmally ill-equipped to integrate him into American life.

Congress, in consultation with the administration, allocates refugee quotas on “humanitarian grounds” pursuant to the definition of a refugee. Given the fairly inelastic nature of the supply of refugee slots, it is a real coup when an entire group receives automatic coverage, which is what Congress provided with Morrison-Lautenberg. According to the UNHCR, almost no one emigrating from the Soviet Union today would fit its definition of a refugee. I participated in a 1983 National Opinion Research Center/University of Illinois survey of mostly Jewish Soviet immigrants. Of twenty or so randomly selected people that I interviewed not one listed religious or political persecution as the reason for their decision to leave the Soviet Union. Most of my Soviet friends, many of whom arrived in the last three years, agree—in private—that, for the majority of Soviets, persecution plays little or no role in their decision to leave.

A State Department official in Moscow told me about the wave of dubious conversions among Christian evangelicals, who have never been freer to practice their faith at home. “Evangelical” is a catchall term for various Protestant groups comprising Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and others. Past repression of religion in the Soviet Union was equally ferocious against all who would practice their faith. The severity of the repression varied directly with the enthusiasm shown by the believer in the practice of his faith. It has been observed that- many evangelicals are opting to stay home where their work is most needed. For the overwhelming majority of Soviet émigrés, religion is of no importance whatever.

Anti-Semitism remains a problem in the Soviet Union as it does throughout Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe. Jewish friends of mine who emigrated from Soviet Central Asia report experiencing no anti-Semitism at home, while those in large cities in the Russian republic are experiencing increased hostility in some circles. However, based on acts of ethnic violence and persecution, many non-Jewish groups in the Soviet Union could make a better case for blanket coverage as a persecuted minority. In the end, part of the resentment against Jews is explained by the fact that, with a few exceptions, only Jews have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union and settle in other countries. Any Soviet citizen with relatives in the West becomes a source for scarce goods from the West—another explanation for jealousy and envy.

Various programs have been put forward to privatize Soviet immigration. As opposed to steadily raising the refugee ceiling, the Reagan administration had begun to use its authority under the Public Interest Parole program to process some of the overflow from the refugee program. Like the Displaced Persons Act following World War II or the parole program used after the Hungarian Revolution, a private sponsor vouches for all costs, including medical, which the parolee might incur. The parolee also signs affidavits to the effect that he understands he is legally enjoined from receiving government assistance. He is free to work, and, in time, may apply for citizenship under the same constraints as any holder of a work visa. Self-regulating by its nature, programs such as these may be the only way to absorb those who can be absorbed. Thousands of American homes were opened for this purpose to refugees fleeing World War II and the Hungarian Revolution. Resettlement programs based on private sponsorship provide an organic link to an established community and hasten integration into the culture, language, and economy. They impart a strong impetus toward self-sufficiency by placing the costs on the sponsor and the immigrant. Processing immigrants as refugees essentially transfers the costs of resettlement from the sponsor and the immigrant to the taxpayer.

The Public Interest Parole program, however, was an Executive-branch tool used to affect policy in an area that is the responsibility of Congress. More importantly, it placed an increased financial burden on the Jewish community. Private sponsorship programs of any sort (whether linked to Morrison-Lautenberg criteria or not) have been opposed by mainline Jewish lobbies because of fear that, along with non-Jews, the number of Jews emigrating may increase and at a higher cost to boot. “We’re afraid they’ll all wind up on our doorstep” one lobbyist told me. (Israel’s adamant opposition to any increase in Jewish emigration to the United States fits nicely with the Jewish lobby’s defense of the status quo when it comes to refugee policy.)

Not only is the parole program now effectively dead because of lack of financial support, but those Soviet parolees who were accepted in earlier years have been allowed, under Morrison-Lautenberg, to requalify as refugees after settling in the United States. Yet, under current law, even if all costs are guaranteed by a sponsor, there is no way a private American citizen or charity can sponsor a Soviet immigrant who is outside the group covered by Morrison-Lautenberg.

At issue is not whether the United States should be spending money on humanitarian aid. At issue is whether a dollar spent in a Kurdish refugee camp has a better chance of furthering humanitarian ends than a dollar spent helping someone move to New York with an entire living room set and with plans to return for visits at the family dacha outside Moscow.

At best Congress has set the stage for special interest group infighting for privileged admission status. At worst, refugee policy is a taxpayer-funded political tool that suggests to foreigners that passage to America is yet another item “for sale” from Uncle Sam.