Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., proposed in 1990 an amendment to the foreign operations appropriations bill. Its purpose: to aid those facing religious persecution, at that time mostly devout believers from the crumbling Soviet Union. Adopted as law, it established a legal presumption of eligibility for refugees, mostly Christians and Jews, based on the principle that under such regimes they as a class face well-founded fears of persecution. More recently the law has allowed thousands of Ukrainians to enter the United States, and in 2004 lawmakers expanded it to include Iranian Christians and others.
The amendment is subject to renewal each year by Congress as part of the appropriations process and is in effect following renewal last May. Yet in spite of congressional approval and legal standing, according to sources close to the process, for the past year the State Department has accepted no new Lautenberg cases in Vienna. That development, coupled with apparent U.S. denials to these 100 applicants, may suggest the Trump administration is quietly shutting down a program currently authorized by Congress.
In 2017, according to the State Department, 1,275 individuals arrived in the United States under the Lautenberg program, compared with 2,323 in 2016.
“I think it’s tragic for the Lautenberg Amendment to be thwarted,” said Ann Buwalda, executive director of Jubilee Campaign and a practicing immigration attorney. “It is U.S. law, including all its remedies and appeals. These cases should all appeal their denials and try to save the Lautenberg process.”
Under the law’s provisions, those who reach Vienna already have passed initial U.S. security screening procedures and successfully documented their cases. The Austrian government issues them visas at the request of the State Department, in what amounts to an invitation from the United States to apply for asylum. At that point, most Iranians sell their belongings, cutting ties to their homeland on a reasonable assurance of receiving U.S. admission. Once in Vienna, they undergo additional interviews by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers and a medical exam. In the past, once in Vienna, the cases took only several weeks to two or three months to process, and the rate of acceptance was nearly 100 percent.
Under procedures in place before the Trump administration, applicants typically undergo four or five separate screenings, according to Buwalda. Those with past military service (even if it’s compulsory, as it is in Iran) or from areas considered “hot” for some reason may be denied. Sometimes DHS officers request baptism records and other papers to verify religious identity. And personal stories must match all documentation. Overall, each case is supposed to be reviewed on an individual basis, and denials en masse are rare.
The Iranians appear to have completed these steps a year ago. One applicant provided a letter he received on March 28, 2017, from the DHS Citizenship and Immigration Services saying his application “has been conditionally approved.” Another said her family received a call about the same time, saying they were cleared for entry and would receive information soon regarding airline tickets. In each case, these were the last official words on their cases, despite many inquiries, until now.
The United States has the largest Assyrian and Armenian populations outside the Middle East and Armenia, and many if not most applicants have relatives living here. WORLD is not naming the applicants or their relatives because many also have family still living in Iran. As their cases linger in limbo, they fear reprisals because they already have faced government harassment, including arrests, and job discrimination. The applicants range in age from 18 years old to the elderly, and at least two families have children with disabilities.
One U.S. relative, an Assyrian Christian from Iran who has lived for 18 years in the United States, told me his nephew in Vienna learned early in 2017 he had passed his medical exam and his final background check, and would be issued a U.S. visa. But the visa never came through, and he did not receive information on his case until he learned on Feb. 19 that U.S. officials had reversed themselves and denied his case “as a matter of discretion.” Authorities also informed him he had two weeks to leave Austria.
‘The law is clear: these applicants should be presumed eligible for refugee status.’ —Congressmen Randy Hultgren & Jim McGovern
Another relative living in the United States assisted his family members in applying under the Lautenberg Amendment. The family has been active in churches in Iran, and all have faced job discrimination. Those currently in Vienna are the last family members to leave Iran, and they sold all their belongings and left jobs to make the trip in late 2016.
Family in the United States paid an estimated $6,000 in fees to begin the process through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a U.S. refugee resettlement agency under contract with the State Department to manage Lautenberg cases in Vienna. Relatives say they received some of the money back after securing preliminary approval in Vienna, and the applicants began taking English language classes. Now for 14 months, one of the relatives in the United States said, he has been paying 700 euros a month, or $870, toward the couple’s rent on a studio apartment in Vienna. The couple has not learned whether they have been approved or denied entry to the United States.
Carlo Ganjeh, past president of the Assyrian American Association of San Jose and a California resident who immigrated from Iran decades ago, said he and others put together a list of at least 32 cases after learning they were being held up by DHS. The group presented the list to Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who represents many from America’s Assyrian population. Through a spokesman, Eshoo said she “does not discuss casework due to privacy concerns.”
The confusion surrounding the latest Lautenberg Amendment cases has drawn increasing scrutiny from members of Congress amid Iran’s growing unrest, as thousands have been arrested since December over street protests. On Jan. 30 the House co-chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, asking for his help in resolving the cases.
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.”
Pence has not responded to the inquiry, but Hultgren and McGovern issued a statement Feb. 20 saying they were “disappointed” by reports of Vienna cases being turned down and said, “DHS must provide Congress with details about these visa denials.” They also called for the program to resume.
Enhanced security requirements seem to be the central issue for the applicants, but neither State nor DHS officers are forthcoming about what’s changed. In a Feb. 18 statement provided to WORLD in response to inquiries, 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.
Applicants I spoke to say authorities have given them no options except to return to Iran. But U.S. and Austrian officials have privately said Armenia may be willing to resettle those not allowed into the United States. Alexander Marakovits, Austria’s Interior Ministry spokesman, initially told me Austria was “looking into” the cases, but he did not respond to follow-up requests for information. Last year Austria elected its first center-right government led by Sebastian Kurz, who ran mainly on an anti-immigrant platform.
The State Department refused to say how many Lautenberg Amendment applicants had been denied asylum, or how many may be given preliminary approval this year to leave Iran. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. Officers at HIAS, the U.S. resettlement agency for cases in Vienna, 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 in February expressing concern over prison sentences for Christians. They said Tehran is acting “completely contrary to Iran’s international obligations” after a court sentenced 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.