This February, the Department of Homeland Security issued mass denials to Iranian refugees in a special program designed to provide a safe haven for Iran’s persecuted religious minorities.
When the Specter Amendment was enacted in 2004, it added persecuted religious minorities from Iran as a group entitled to the special procedural protections of the Lautenberg Amendment. Through the program, people in the United States, often close family members, can apply for refugee admission on behalf of persecuted Iranian Christians, Jews, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians in Iran and sponsor their applications. After clearing initial screening, the applicants travel to Austria to complete in-person interviews and other security and medical checks in an environment where they are safe from persecution. Historically, applicants have completed processing in Vienna in a matter of months.
Protecting religious minorities has always been of great importance to the United States, a nation founded in part by religious minorities seeking a place to practice their faith safely. In 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in an annual report produced by the Department of State, identified Iran as a “country of particular concern,” stating that the Iranian government “engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.” This assessment is shared by international human rights advocacy groups.
In October 2017, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech declaring that the Trump Administration would act to protect religious minorities in the Middle East: “We stand with those who suffer for their faith because that is what America has always done. The common bond of our humanity demands a strong response.” As recently as January 2018, he published an op-ed condemning former President Barack Obama’s failure in 2009 “to express America’s solidarity with the Iranian protesters . . . [as] an abdication of American leadership.”
However, actions speak louder than words and since late 2016, processing of Iranian refugees through the Vienna-based Lautenberg-Specter program has dramatically slowed. In February of this year, roughly 90 applicants in Vienna who have been stuck there for nearly a year were rejected from the program.
The Co-Chairs of Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and James P. McGovern (D-MA), decried the move:
“These Iranians are members of religious minorities fleeing a regime that has brutally oppressed their communities since 1979. . . . Under no circumstance should those seeking refugee status be repatriated to Iran, where they could be subjected to arrest and torture.”
The program has historically been a route for refugees fleeing persecution to reach safety in the United States. Prior to the processing delays of late 2016, almost 100% of the Iranian refugee applicants who traveled to Vienna were admitted to the U.S. after having been thoroughly screened and vetted.
The Lautenberg statute requires that applicants who are rejected from the program be given information explaining the denial “to the maximum extent feasible.” But in this case, applicants were given no information about the reason for their rejection; instead, they were given paper copies of notices stating that the applicants had been denied “as a matter of discretion.” Not only does this fail to meet the statutory standard of providing information “to the maximum extent feasible,” it also is less information than what most applicants are given when they are rejected from the United States Refugee Admissions Program.
In sum, the U.S. has denied refuge to nearly 90 individuals, most of whom have close relatives in the United States, who are fleeing from an authoritarian regime. Even though Congress designated these individuals as being of “special humanitarian concern” to the United States, the U.S. Government, after inviting them to travel to Vienna, denied them en masse.
After more than a year in limbo, these individuals are destitute and their visas in Austria have expired. If forced to return to Iran, they would be at even more risk than when they departed Iran, because they are now known to have sought asylum in the United States. Given that their rejections lack the statutorily required information regarding the reasons for the denial, the applicants are unable to meaningfully request a review of the denial, let alone address any concerns that the government may have identified.
The International Refugee Assistance Project has been assisting the refugees who received these denials “as a matter of discretion,” and just days ago, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California challenging the mass denials, with legal advice provided pro bono by Latham & Watkins. The lawsuit challenges the undisclosed program changes that resulted in the mass denials and the government’s failure to adequately advise the refugee applicants and their families of the reasons for the denials. They deserve due process. They deserve to know why their applications were rejected, so that they can meaningfully pursue the administrative review process available to them. The administration must correct this by offering these refugees a proper explanation of their reasons for denial.