More than two thousand Syrian Jewish immigrants residing in
the United States are eagerly awaiting the issuance of a
directive from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service's headquarters in Washington that will allow them,
after a wait of nearly a decade, to apply for permanent
residency. Among those urging the INS to issue the order is
Agudath Israel of America.
Abba Cohen, director and counsel of Agudath Israel's
Washington Office, explains that recently enacted federal
legislation permits the Syrian-born Jews, who arrived in
this country in the early 1990s, to apply for the "green
cards" that will constitute their "critical first step
The Jews in question were among approximately 4000 Jews who
left Syria as a result of a special agreement between then-
President George Bush and Syrian President Hafez el-Assad,
the Agudath Israel representative recounts. The Syrian
dictator made their travel conditional, however, on their
admission to the United States as tourists, not refugees.
"Having arrived as tourists and remaining as asylees," Mr.
Cohen continues, "they have faced serious limitations and
have been suspended in a state of legal limbo.
"Among other things, they cannot work in their chosen
professions; they cannot travel freely; they cannot obtain
medical insurance or educational scholarships. And they have
been unable to apply for naturalization."
While approximately 30 percent of the immigrants were
allotted green cards, allowing them to receive the residence
and work permits necessary to apply for citizenship, the
others were not. Some emigrated to Israel, but many of those
who stayed in the United States have taken odd jobs and,
finding themselves in severe financial straits, have become
dependent on community support.
The legislative effort to help alleviate their plight was
spearheaded by Maurice Hedaya, of the Sephardic Voters
League, and a number of Jewish organizations joined the
endeavor. Agudath Israel considered the legislation a high
priority and lobbied hard for its enactment both on Capitol
Hill and in the White House.
As a result, legislation was originally introduced in the
U.S. House of Representatives last year by Representative
Anthony Weiner (D - NY) and in the Senate by Senator Charles
Schumer (D - NY). The bill was also supported by President
Clinton and was subsequently signed into law -- but the
Syrian Jews have still not found a clear path before them.
Agudath Israel has been in contact with the sponsoring
legislators on the issue, as well as with prominent New York
immigration attorney David Grunblatt, who is coordinating
efforts on the Syrian Jews' behalf. The congressional
sponsors and Mr. Grunblatt have also approached the INS on
this matter. "While the law has provided the immigrants
relief on paper," says Mr. Cohen, "the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service District Office in New York, where
most of them reside, has insisted that it can press forward
and process their applications only after it receives an
explicit directive from Washington." Such a directive will
outline the procedures necessary to implement the new law.
Toward the end of ensuring that such a directive indeed is
transmitted, and quickly, Mr. Cohen has implored the INS to
expedite its crafting and communication to branch offices.