A BYPRODUCT of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for ``openness'' in Soviet society has been the gradual opening of the Soviet border. Sergei Ivanko, a member of the board of the Novosti press agency, has estimated that the total number of Jews allowed to emigrate in 1987 would approach 12,000, more than 10 times the 1986 figure. It is not only Jews who are benefiting from the new tolerance. Ethnic Germans have also been leaving the country in record numbers. Still, we should not grow complacent. The liberation of ethnic emigration may distract us from the larger question of the free movement of peoples.
The emigration of both Jews and Germans is based on the doctrine of ``repatriation.'' That is, if one is a member of an ethnic group with a homeland which lies outside the USSR, such as Israel or Germany, and if members of one's immediate family live there and invite one to join them, only then will one be eligible to apply for an exit visa - with no guarantee it will be granted. If, on the other hand, one is not a member of an externally based ethnic group, or does not have family outside the USSR, one cannot get out, at least not legally.
At the Helsinki review conference now underway in Vienna, the Western nations have admonished the Soviets for not allowing their people to emigrate. The Soviets have responded with characteristic indignation. Chief negotiator Yurii Kashlev noted that travel was important but added, ``We don't live in an era of nomads.''
Sarcasm aside, the Soviets have raised a telling point. Should not the right to emigrate, they ask, be accompanied by a right to immigrate? That is, if they are going to be required to open their borders to allow their people to leave, the Western nations should be required to accept them. Western diplomats have rejected this notion out of hand, citing numerous economic and political factors which would make such a scheme impossible. But when they do this they fall into a trap, for it is a simple matter for the Soviets to then claim the same reasons for keeping their people inside the country.
This reasoning reveals the hypocrisy of US immigration policy. Under ordinary circumstances, when someone from the USSR asks for political asylum, the US grants it automatically. Our laws recognize that those who are fleeing from political, especially communist, oppression, must be given safe haven. We take a moral stand; but we do so only because we can afford to. The annual number of such refugees is so small that we can absorb them without facing adverse political, social, and economic consequences. If this trickle turned into a flood, we would be forced to reevaluate our position.
This is why it is safe for the US to support the Soviet policy of repatriation. After all, none of the Jews, Germans, Poles, Greeks, or other ethnic groups in the USSR can claim the right to emigrate to the US. We don't have to expect a sudden rush of immigrants should the Soviets loosen their grip. True, some emigrants will come to the US, instead of going to the ``homeland'' they have never seen, but their number will be small.
We have consented to play by Soviet rules, and in doing so have lost the moral force of our original policy. We should reject the notion that we are fighting for the ``repatriation'' of peoples, when what we desire is their liberation, their freedom from totalitarian tyranny. By adopting the Soviet position, we automatically write off the aspirations of the Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Russians, and others inside the USSR to escape to the West. We cannot secure the release of thousands of Jews and Germans when it means sanctifying the continued confinement of millions of others.
We can regain the moral high ground by adopting an open-border policy for anyone who wants to enter the country from the East. We can then legitimately request that the Soviets allow all, not some, of those who want to leave their country to do so. Would the Soviets comply? Of course not. Their call for open borders is a bluff. But it is a bluff which should make us recognize the problems with our migration policy.
James S. Robbins is a student in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.