MOSCOW (AP) _ Secretary of State George P. Shultz said the Soviet Union has made progress on human rights issues, but Jews seeking exit visas said their cases could suffer because of publicity on dissidents who have been freed.

Shultz met Thursday with ''refuseniks'' - people refused permission to emigrate - and said he had raised the matter of human rights in meetings with Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and other Soviet officials.

''First we have questions of human rights. They are the most important thing,'' he said he told Shevardnadze. ''After all, what is all this about?''

After shaking hands with refuseniks, he told them ''we feel we have made some headway'' in getting Soviet officials to address U.S. concerns on human rights and to consider emigration questions on a case-by-case basis.

But some refuseniks said that while the government has permitted some of them to leave and has formed a committee to handle other cases, the ones remaining may find it harder to emigrate.

''My theory is that the more people who leave, the less the chances for those of us left behind,'' said Yelena Kaplan, 29, who has sought permission to join her husband in California for nearly 10 years.

Sergei Petrov, whose has tried for the last 10 years to join his American wife, said: ''I don't understand why Americans will sell out so cheaply for publicity.''

Petrov's comment followed the meeting between Shultz and refuseniks including 24-year-old Svetlana Braun, who three hours earlier was told by Soviet authorities she could join her American husband, Keith, in the United States after a recently formed agency intervened in the case.

The U.S. officials were told the committee, created in the nominal Soviet parliament, overturned the bureaucracy's three-year refusal to let Mrs. Braun emigrate.

Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state who deals with humanitarian issues, said more than 6,000 Soviet citizens have been allowed to emigrate so far this year, about six times the total for all of 1986. Most of those seeking exit visas are Jews.

About 7,500 more cases are pending, he told the gathering of about 50 people at a U.S. diplomat's home. Those attending were refuseniks, members of divided families and Soviets who hold U.S. citizenship.

Schifter said: ''We still have a very, very hard road ahead, but at the same time there seems to be some change in the response.''

He said Thursday's meetings convinced him that the long-promised Soviet committee to review rejected applications is working.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israel, family members of Soviet Jews denied exit visas held a vigil Thursday outside the U.S. Embassy, urging Shultz to press the Soviet government to loosen its emigration policy.

The action by about 50 people was timed to coincide with the meeting Thursday between Shultz and Shevardnadze. Shultz was to meet today with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Chaim Chessler, chairman of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, said Ambassador Thomas Pickering emerged from the embassy to receive a letter saying, in part: ''The release of a few long-time refuseniks is cause for rejoicing, but it is also a cynical manipulation of Western opinion by Soviet authorities.''