Nearly 100 Iranians, many of whom are either Christians or other persecuted religious minorities, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government challenging the mass denials of their applications for refugee status under an expedited U.S. program.
The Iranian individuals and their family members applied for refugee resettlement in the United States under the Lautenberg Amendment, a law Congress first passed in 1989 to facilitate refugee admission of Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. Lawmakers expanded the program in 2004 to include religious minorities in Iran.
The program has admitted thousands of Iranian Christians and other religious minorities over the past decade at a near 100 percent acceptance rate without incident, according to U.S. lawmakers familiar with the acceptance record. However, in February the Department of Homeland Security denied the latest group, who were awaiting resettlement in Vienna as required.
The DHS letters of denial did not provide the reasons behind the decision, stating only that the applicants were being barred from resettling in the U.S. "as a matter of discretion."
The DHS did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
A State Department spokeswoman earlier this year did not elaborate on why DHS had denied the group of Iranians, saying only the "safety and security of the American people are paramount," and that "Iranian refugee applicants under this program are subject to the same security vetting processes that apply to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America."
The news was a devastating blow to the many in the group, who had been waiting in Vienna for nearly a year while the U.S. government considered their cases.
Many of them now worry they will not be able to seek asylum elsewhere, and will be forced to return back to Iran, where they could face greater persecution for trying to emigrate to the U.S., and possibly imprisonment and death in Iran's notoriously harsh prisons.
The denials have raised concerns in Congress among champions of religious freedom and the Lautenberg program, including Reps. Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.), who co-chair the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The commission is dedicated to advocating on behalf of persecuted minorities around the world.
Critics said the U.S. government has mistreated the group by inviting them to leave Iran, sell their worldly possessions, and travel to Vienna for additional screening before admitting them to the United States, a process which is usually perfunctory.
They also worry that high-profile denials jeopardize the Lautenberg Program itself and the refugee status it has provided persecuted minorities for decades.
The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) at the Urban Justice Center, along with law firm Latham & Watkins, is representing the group of Iranians.
"The U.S. government extended a helping hand to these Iranian Christians, Mandeans, and other persecuted religious minorities who wanted to join their family members in the United States, only to cruelly whip it away for no discernible reason at all," Mariko Hirose, IRAP's litigation director, said in a statement. "The government's conduct betrays America's long-standing commitment to be a beacon of religious freedom, as embodied by the Lautenberg Amendment."
The Iranians are seeking the court's intervention to enforce the Lautenberg Amendment so they might have the opportunity to reunite with family members in the U.S. and have the chance to practice their religious beliefs in the safety of the country.
Denying the Iranian individuals without stating anything beyond it being "a matter of discretion" prevents them from requesting DHS review and puts their lives in danger, the lawsuit charges.
The plaintiffs in the suit include U.S. citizens with family members who were part of the group who the U.S. government recently denied.
They include a mother who lives in San Jose, Calif. who is seeking to reunite with her diabetic daughter and young grandchild; a son who is eager to bring his mother and developmentally disabled adult brother to the U.S. for better access to treatment and caregiving support; and a widow stranded in Vienna with her elderly father and disabled toddler, according to the IRAP.
"The denial has had a terrible impact on me and my family," one of the plaintiffs, who preferred to remain anonymous, said in a statement. "My son suffers from repeated epileptic attacks and congenital hydrocephalus, requiring regular medical attention, which we do not have access to here in Austria."
Under the program, U.S. residents can submit applications on behalf of refugee applicants residing in Iran, as long as they belong to a recognized religious minority and can prove their membership in the persecuted group.
Applicants must pass an initial screening while they are still in Iran. If that process is successful, the U.S. "invites" them through a formal letter to travel to Vienna, Austria, to continue the processing of their refugee applications from a safe location.
The United States and Austria have a longstanding agreement that authorities in Vienna will provide temporary refuge for the Lautenberg program applicants. Critics of the February DHS denials worry that agreement is now in jeopardy because the refugees have been waiting in limbo, many for more than a year in Vienna, running out of money for food and housing.
The White House and other "high-level officials" also have been monitoring the plight of the group of Iranian applicants to try to prevent their deportation back to Iran or to countries where they face few job prospects.
Hultgren and McGovern in late February sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, asking for a clearer rationale about DHS's denial of the group.
"After years of successful and prompt admittance of Iranian religious minorities to the United States under the Lautenberg program, DHS must provide Congress with details about these visa denials," the lawmakers said. "And whatever the reasons, we hope the other persecuted Iranians temporarily residing in Austria will receive prompt approvals: their safety and security should be our top priority. Under no circumstance should those seeking refugee status be repatriated to Iran, where they could be subjected to arrest and torture. We urge our allies to engage and offer safe harbor to these refugees."