THE Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! This time it's not the popular 1966 movie - it's real life. Newly-proposed laws in the USSR could soon free hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens to emigrate to the United States. US sources predict that requests for permission to emigrate to the US could soar to 100,000-to-125,000 this year, and 250,000 in 1990. Potential emigr'es include Jews, Armenians, Pentacostals, and other minorities who have long sought to leave the Soviet Union.
The sudden rush of Soviet immigrants, however, could severely test America's traditional open-door policy toward anyone fleeing communism. It could also strain the federal budget; the cost to US taxpayers for resettling each refugee averages $7,000.
As Michael Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) opens the USSR's doors, some Americans are cheering, while others are calling for a rapid reassessment of US immigration policies. Congress and the administration, worried that bureaucratic rules might slam America's doors in the face of new arrivals, recently doubled the number of Soviet refugees who will be accepted here to 43,500 a year. The Senate also has approved a bill that would make it easier to qualify as a refugee.
Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, notes that for years the US called upon Soviet leaders to let their people out. ``Now they're finally doing it, and the US feels an obligation to let these Soviets in,'' Mr. Jervis observes.
According to reports out of Moscow, the Soviet government has drafted new, easier emigration rules, which will go to the Supreme Soviet for approval by the end of the year. Among other things, the rules would restrict the Soviet government's power to deny exit visas to its citizens because of their knowledge of state secrets. But as the Soviets liberalize their rules, some analysts are worried that US immigration policies will need quick revamping. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, observes:
``Policies that make sense when you are talking about Mikhail Baryshnikov don't make sense when you're talking about 20 million people.''
Mr. Stein wonders whether Congress has fully grasped the impact of large-scale immigration from the Soviet Union. It comes atop growing immigration from Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and China. He complains that when any nationality knocks on America's doors, government officials seem all too anxious to open them.
``Everyone [in Congress and the White House] wants to play Santa Claus'' to the world, Stein says.
Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, himself the son of an immigrant mother, says Congress is well aware of the looming difficulties. He calls the level of immigration over the next several years a ``very, very difficult question.''
Mr. Mitchell says that senators have ``concern about the capacity of our society to absorb all of those who wish to come here from other countries.'' He told a small group of reporters in his office recently: ``It seems to me very clear that the answer is that we cannot simply accept everyone who wants to come. We have always, in our society, distinguished between those seeking refugee status ... and those who are immigrants solely for economic reasons.''
Mitchell says: ``Increasingly the lines are converging, and it's not as easy now to distinguish.''
Traditionally, Soviet citizens fled their country to escape religious or political persecution, or to be reunited with their families abroad. But as the exit doors swing wider, thousands are expected to leave to find better economic opportunities in the West.
Last year, the US accepted 2,949 Soviet emigr'es under ordinary immigration rules, which include family reunification. Another 20,421 came to the US as refugees, a huge increase over the 3,694 accepted in 1987, the INS reports. Most of last year's Soviet refugees were Jews who left the USSR with Israeli immigrant visas, but who were accepted here as refugees when they expressed a preference for the US.
Dan Mariachin, a spokesman for B'nai B'rith International, says that the number of Jews in the Soviet Union today is estimated at more than 2 million. ``Clearly, many hundreds of thousands want to go,'' he says.
Mitchell says that three years ago, on a visit to the Soviet Union, he asked a number of ``refuseniks'' how many Jews might like to leave. The answers varied widely - from 100,000 to 1 million, he says. But the numbers Mitchell cites do not include other minority groups, such as Armenians, many of whom are also anxious for exit visas. Federal officials say they have no good estimates of those numbers.
Mr. Mariachin says: ``We have never been confronted with free and open immigration [from communist countries], and the Jewish community is looking at that. Israel is another destination which could absorb many thousands'' of these emigr'es, he notes. But in recent years Israel has become a less attractive destination. In earlier years, 80 percent of Soviet Jewish emigr'es went to Israel, only a fraction to the US. Today, those numbers are reversed.
While the US sets a ceiling on the number of refugees, including Soviet refugees, accepted each year, the president, in consultation with Congress, can readily boost those numbers. Privately, some members of the Senate say the attitude now is: let in everyone. But that mood could quickly change if numbers swell beyond 100,000 a year, Senate insiders say.