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The Clinton administration is planning to admit 20,000 fewer refugees in the next year despite a steady increase in the number of people forced to flee their homes because of war, famine or other causes.

Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff testified Tuesday that the administration is proposing an 18 percent reduction in refugee admissions in fiscal 1996 - from 110,000 to 90,000.Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tarnoff said the international community does not view large-scale permanent resettlement as "an appropriate or manageable solution for the refugee crises."

Other U.S. officials said the reduction was largely the result of a rapid decline in the number of Vietnamese eligible for refugee status. For years, the United States has been admitting Vietnamese children of American servicemen and Vietnamese identified with the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The reduction drew criticism from Arthur Helton, an immigration expert at the New York-based Soros Foundation.

Given the growth of the refugee population worldwide, Helton said, "sustaining admissions at last year's level would have been more than warranted."

Helton said anti-immigration sentiment in the country was primarily responsible for the administration's refusal to maintain last year's levels. He believes the administration may have had an eye on the 1996 elections in making the decision.

More than half of all refugees admitted to the United States last year settled in California, New York, Texas, Illinois and Florida - all crucial political battlegrounds.