Nikolay Soltys, the Ukrainian immigrant accused of murdering his pregnant wife, 3-year-old son and four other relatives, entered the United States under a special 1989 refugee program that lacked standard police clearances required of other immigrants.
Soltys and nearly 400,000 other evangelical Christians and Jews came to the United States in an operation that provided easy refugee status to religious groups claiming persecution by the former Soviet Union.
Approximately 75,000 have settled in the Sacramento metropolitan area of 1.8 million people.
Under the so-called Lautenberg Amendment, named for former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), religious refugees went through a less-demanding immigration and criminal background process than for others trying to move to the United States, authorities say. The mass departure from the former Soviet Union stemmed from prodding by the Reagan administration to let Jews and Christians leave.
At the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, spokesman Bill Strassberger defended the agency's standards Tuesday, but admitted they are "slightly different for refugees fleeing persecution. We're not able to have them supply a police clearance."
In the wake of Monday's killing spree, questions have arisen concerning Soltys' ability to enter the United States. The killings, committed three years and one day after his Aug. 19, 1998, immigration, brought to light an anecdotal history of domestic spousal abuse in Ukraine, mental instability and rejection from the Ukrainian army.
In California he was unemployed and living on welfare.
"He had mental problems," said Inna Yasinsky, an aunt to one of the children killed Monday.
Specialists say immigrants seeking admission to the United States traditionally provide clearance from their local police department.
But refugees claiming persecution and admitted under the Lautenberg Amendment had a lower standard during the 1990s.
"We're basically taking a leap of faith when we admit these people," said Jack Martin, a retired U.S. State Department foreign service officer in Washington, D.C. "The countries they're coming from are places where there's not a lot of information, and you can't trust a lot of information. So there's no real check."
Soltys had no criminal record in the United States, and police said Thursday they have established no motive for the killing.
The INS' Strassberger said the agency doesn't comment on individuals.
"It's tough," said Ben Johnson, an official with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Unless you're psychic, how do you know who, deep inside their mind, is disturbed? The INS takes its job very seriously and there, the burden of proof is fairly high. Any applicant has to document that they haven't been arrested and document that they haven't had any mental history that would impair their right to come to this country."
Johnson defended the U.S. practice of accepting religious refugees, calling it "near and dear to our country's history."
Strassberger said all applicants, whether immigrants or refugees, are interviewed about their backgrounds by a U.S. State Department officer.
"They're asked if there are any crimes, any treatment for mental disorder, and they take a physical and psychological exam. This all takes place for anyone coming to the United States. .. We want to be sure we're admitting people who are admissible."
In Binghamton, N.Y., a city of 60,000 where the accused murder suspect lived two years before coming to California, Lorelle Frushour of the Interreligious Council of Central New York, said Soltys was resettled by Episcopal Migration Ministries.
She recalled him Tuesday "as a fine person. No problems. We had no indication that there was marital abuse or anything like that." Soltys was sponsored for resettlement to the United States by his father, who has since died.
He moved to California on July 31, 2000. His wife, who remained in the Ukraine, joined him only recently.