LAURA SEGALITE anxiously ponders why she was turned down by United States immigration authorities for entry as a Soviet Jewish refugee. The blue-eyed pediatrician from Vilnius in the Soviet Union now teaches at a school for Russian children in this small seaside town north of Rome. She says US action is a mystery since her brother-in-law was accepted and is now settled in Chicago.
Together with her husband and four-year-old son, Mrs. Segalite has been waiting for acceptance since January in Ladispoli, which has become a major crossroads for Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate to the US.
Though admission to the US as refugees for Soviet Jews was once nearly automatic, rejections have been piling up in a burgeoning backlog of cases since the first cases were turned down last September. Now, if the Segalites are denied a second time, they risk finding themselves stranded in Ladispoli with their assistance cut off.
Two hundred Soviet Jews whose cases have been rejected twice are now being notified that their daily allowance will be terminated within two weeks.
This is only a tiny fraction of the 12,600 Russian Jews appealing their cases in the Rome area. But Merrill Rosenberg, Director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Service (HIAS), which presents the cases to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, predicts ``It's going to get worse before it gets better.''
The assistance program for Soviet Jews is administered by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a US-based Jewish relief organization, and is heavily subsidized by the US government. The program includes maintenance, medical care, and housing in Italy as well as initial resettlement in the US, and the estimated cost per person is $5,500.
The new policy establishing a cutoff point for financial assistance comes as pressure from American Jewish communities and Israeli authorities is mounting for the Soviet Jews to change their destination from the US to Israel. The policy change was approved by the American Jewish organizations contributing to the Ladispoli program.
The cutback in maintenance support also comes amid growing concern that there could be a backlash on a national and local level if the migrant population puts too much strain on social services in the coastal towns near Rome where they are clustered.
The mayor of Ladispoli complained in February that 8,500 Soviets living in a local resident population of 16,000 was unacceptable. Since then, Soviet families have been spread out more thinly in six other beach towns in an effort to cushion the impact of the waves of migrants.
The floodgates of emigration by Soviet Jews were first flung open in 1987 under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's program of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
By sea, plane, or train, the emigrants travel first to Vienna and then fly to Rome. The current rate of 4,000 new arrivals each month has made the Italian capital the hub of one of the largest migrations of Jews since the end of World War II.
Mr. Rosenberg expects 40,000 Soviet Jews to transit through Italy in 1989, and the flow is not expected to subside in upcoming years. An estimated 2.5 million Jews are left in the Soviet Union.
Of those arriving in Italy, nearly 17 percent are now refused admission as refugees to the US, where many already have relatives and friends. The rejection rate peaked in March at 36 percent.
``The US has always been a traditional bastion of freedom,'' explains Rosenberg. ``But there simply is not enough money to bring all these people in as refugees.''
Those who are rejected as refugees have two alternatives: They can still apply for admission to the US with parolee status, or they can go to Israel.
Parolee status means that they must find a sponsor willing to guarantee their livelihood for three years. But a parolee and his or her family is not offered any of the generous resettlement benefits to which refugees are entitled.
On the other hand, few of the recent Soviet emigrants want to move to the war-torn Middle East, despite Israel's eagerness to attract new immigrants. Only 10 percent of the migrants transiting in Italy now opt to go to Israel.
Sergei Ignatyev, a young construction worker from the Ukraine, vigorously shakes his head when asked if he would consider going to Israel if his appeal for admission to the US as a refugee is rejected.
An only child, Mr. Ignatyev hopes to live in Baltimore, where he has friends and hopes his parents will someday be allowed to join him. If his second application is rejected he plans to apply for admission to the US as a parolee.
Meanwhile, sympathy for Soviet Jews holding out for US visas is rapidly diminishing among American Jewish groups supporting the transmigration program.
``Much of the immigration is economically, not ideologically, motivated,'' said David Harman, director of the JDC education program. Mr. Harman was speaking to a group of prominent American Jewish contributors who visited Ladispoli last week before continuing on the group's annual Prime Minister's Mission to Israel.
Traveling with the group was Moshe Nativ, Director General of the Jewish Agency, which promotes immigration to Israel. ``Many people here feel Ladispoli should be closed down because it's a waste of resources,'' Mr. Natif observers.
Nativ points out that Soviet Jews are directly given exit visas for Israel after their passports are confiscated in the Soviet Union and can fly directly from Vienna to Tel Aviv.
The shift in emphasis on immigration to Israel as opposed to the US is clearly reflected in the activities sponsored at the Ladispoli school and summer camp. At the school, Hebrew is the main language now taught along with the Jewish religion and the history and geography of Israel. Ten out of the 17 camp counselors are former Soviet immigrants flown in from Israel.
Yet despite the campaign to convince the migrants to change their preferred destination, only 250 Russians so far have done so this year. ``They simply don't want to go to there,'' says Rosenberg of the vast majority of Soviets.
Soviets now facing the prospect of being cut off after a second rejection view new US legislation affecting who is eligible for refugee status as their best safety net.
At a July 19 demonstration in front of the US Embassy in Rome, about 100 Soviets rallied in favor of a pending bill that would automatically grant refugee status to all Soviet Jews.
Currently refugees must prove on a case-by-case basis their eligibility based on the standard of a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' spelled out in the 1980 Refugee Act.
One version of the new legislation - called the Morrison-Lautenberg bill - was approved by the House of Representatives on July 13 and is specifically aimed at admitting all Soviet Jews and Indochinese refugees.