The Trump Administration has limited refugee admissions to 45,000 for FY2018, and is currently on track to admit less than half that number. Refugee admissions were cited as a possible avenue for terrorist entry into the United States, with the Syrian refugee crisis held up as an example of that threat. Instead of targeting the Syrian refugee program, the Administration has taken a holistic approach to revaluating (or re-vetting) refugee admissions. As a result, worldwide admissions have crawled to a snail’s pace, leaving many who would otherwise qualify for protection with nowhere else to turn. The Administration’s actions could also violate existing laws and agreements that provide special handling for particularly vulnerable individuals.
One such law is the Lautenberg Amendment, enacted in 1989, to facilitate refugee admissions of persecuted religious minorities from specified countries by lowering the evidentiary burden and mandating certain procedural protections. Due to Iran’s zealous persecution of religious minorities (listed as a “country of concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for 17 consecutive years), Iranian religious minorities were added to the Lautenberg Amendment in 2004 and reaffirmed every year since, and an additional agreement was reached with the government of Austria to assist in processing these refugees.
Under the Vienna Lautenberg-Specter program, a U.S. citizen or lawful resident submits an application to HIAS, a Maryland-based non-profit that works in coordination with the Department of State to operate a Resettlement Support Center in Vienna, Austria, on behalf of a relative suffering religious persecution in Iran. The U.S. sponsor must pledge to financially support the refugee and also pay the application fees. After processing, the Austrian government permits the Iranian national to travel to Vienna on a special visa to complete processing. Once in Austria, USCIS officers stationed there interview and screen the refugees to ensure the eligibility requirements are met and security checks are performed. Prior to 2016, nearly 100% of Iranians who traversed this process were approved.
However, President Trump’s changes to refugee admissions, as well as Iran’s inclusion in the “travel ban,” caused Iranian refugee admissions to grind to a halt. Approximately 100 Iranian refugees have been stranded in Vienna with denied refugee applications and an Austrian visa that will soon expire. In an attempt to force the Administration to uphold the tenants of the Lautenberg Amendment, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Departments of Homeland Security and State regarding these blanket denial of refugee applications from Iranian religious minorities.
Iran is a notorious state-sponsor of terrorism and each administration since President Jimmy Carter has recognized the nation as such. Iran has been responsible for directly funding, training, and facilitating numerous terrorist attacks across the world, including against U.S. facilities, interests, and allies. At the same time, it is important to remember that these offenses are being committed by the regime in power, not the average Iranian and especially not religious minorities suffering persecution. Unfortunately, the administration’s desire to suspend immigration and curtail refugee admissions does not recognize this reality. Both the President and Vice President have publicly stated that they will do all they can to protect those suffering from religious persecution, particularly Christians in the Middle East. However, the delay and denial of Iranian Christians using the Vienna Lautenberg-Specter program seems to indicate that the Administration’s commitment to protecting religious refugees is more talk than action.
Ryan Morgan Knight is an associate attorney with Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington, DC, focusing his practice on a broad spectrum of employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visas.