Pence voted to expand the Lautenberg Amendment to include religious minorities in Iran in 2003 while he was a member of Congress. He said last year, “The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred America to act.” Lawmakers and commission co-chairs Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican, and Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged Pence to take action, writing, “The law is clear: these applicants should be presumed eligible for refugee status.”
“The law is clear: these applicants should be presumed eligible for refugee status.” – Randy Hultgren and Jim McGovern
On Friday the State Department informally notified the commission’s offices that “some but not all” of the 100 refugee applicants had been denied by the Department of Homeland Security for failing to meet enhanced security requirements.
In a prepared statement provided to WORLD on Sunday, the State Department said: “These individuals were subject to the same rigorous process for resettlement as all refugees and, following input from all relevant departments and agencies, the applications for resettlement were denied.” The statement said applicants could request a review of the decision and could receive U.S.-funded counseling on options for resettlement in other countries.
The State Department refused to say how many Lautenberg Amendment applicants had been denied asylum, but said more than 800 Iranian religious minorities were approved for admission since January 2017. It has not provided numbers for previous years or said how many have been given preliminary approval this year to leave Iran. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. Officers with HIAS, the resettlement agency, said they had no comment at this time.
Decisions to deny refugee admission to Iranian Christians and other religious minorities come as persecution in Iran persists. In an unusual move, four top UN officials issued a statement this month expressing concern over prison sentences for Christians. They said Tehran is acting “completely contrary to Iran’s international obligations” in sentencing three pastors to between 10 and 15 years in prison last year. Appeals in those cases—for pastors Victor Bet Tamraz, Amin Afshar Naderi, and Hadi Asgari—were set for Feb. 4 but appear to be postponed.
In the United States, refugee admissions for Christians have decreased overall by 63 percent under Trump—from 42,707 admitted the last year of the Obama administration to 15,684 in Trump’s first year in office. A steep decline in all refugee admissions left the total number admitted in 2017 at just 29,725 people—well below the 47,000 ceiling set by Trump, which was half the ceiling set in 2016 under former President Barack Obama.
The drop seems to be falling hard on those Trump vowed to help. Only days after assuming office, President Donald Trump said concerning Christians in the Middle East, “They’ve been horribly treated. It’s been very, very tough for them and very, very unfair, so we are going to help them.”
Not helping the Lautenberg cases, say some human rights experts, may prove devastating. Facing deportation during a human-rights crackdown in Iran, said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, “could be a death sentence for these persecuted Christians and other minorities.”
This story has been updated to reflect a corrected number of Christian refugees admitted in the final year of the Obama administration.