IT'S official: The Russians really are coming.
The Soviet legislature has passed an open-door emigration policy allowing citizens to travel or live abroad. Soviet officials estimate that at least 500,000 citizens will emigrate annually, and eventually as many as 5 million could leave for the West. The Russian republic, the Soviet Union's largest, probably will see at least a million refugees leave for Western Europe and the United States.
"We do not have enough paper to provide passports for all those wanting them," says Vladimir Shcherbakov, Soviet chairman of the State Committee for Labor and Social Affairs.
The Soviet Union remains in the throes of its most serious economic and political crisis since World War II. Thousands of workers are on strike. Food lines are long and store shelves are empty. Inflation is soaring. Meanwhile, several republics continue to press for independence, in what could lead to a violent showdown.
"We are plunging into an economic depression that makes the American depression of 60 years ago look like a stroll in the park," says Soviet economist Vasily Selyunin.
Thus, the Russian desire for economic freedom is easy to understand. Since Kremlin leadership has typically limited or forbidden emigration to the West, the new policy marks an important victory for which the United States has fought for years.
But now that Soviet citizens are "voting with their feet," the United States must demonstrate that its appeals for lifting Soviet bans on emigration were more than hollow rhetoric. We need a bold immigration plan that shows the Russians they are welcome here.
"If we fail to devise a plan to cope with this migration, there will be a dramatic rise in illegal immigration, and with it crime, poverty, and unemployment," says Leon Aron, a Heritage Foundation Soviet specialist, and himself a Soviet emigre.
To ease the resettlement of Russian emigres, Aron says the United States must develop a joint U.S.-West European immigration strategy. Western Europe will bear the initial brunt of the exodus, and if the Russians are kept out of America, they will pose a huge political and economic problem for West Europeans.
On the other hand, the United States could welcome many of the immigrants, expanding our immigration policy by creating a humanitarian category to the immigration act. The West Europeans could provide them with food and housing as they wait to enter America -- and eventually with a plane ticket to get them here.
In addition, Congress could create a resettlement "Liberty Fund" to support Russian immigrants during their first six months in the United States. Most of the immigrants won't have relatives here to help, or the skills to become immediately employable. But instead of adding the immigrants to the welfare rolls, Congress should offer them low-interest loans, to be repaid within 10 years of their arrival.
Certainly, helping the Russians now will cost something. But assisting immigrants is very much within the American tradition. For all my lifetime we've been urging the Soviets to open their doors. Now it's our turn to open ours.
Edwin Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.