Advocates for a group of nearly 90 Christian and other religious-minority refugees from Iran are praising a ruling by a federal judge in California earlier this week that forces the Trump administration to reconsider their asylum requests after issuing a blanket denial of all of them earlier this year.
The refugees and U.S. human rights activists representing their interests say the decision is a break-through in a troubling case that has left the group of Iranians marooned in Vienna and has earned the sympathy and attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress, as well as high-level Trump administration officials.
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Since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied their asylum applications en masse in February, the group has been left in limbo in Vienna, unable either to return to Iran out of fear of further persecution and possible death or to reunite with family members or other sponsors in the U.S.
"It's a step in the right direction, and we're happy that the court recognizes that the government can't just use whatever terms it wants [to deny these applicants]. It has to follow what Congress intended this program to be—to give heightened protections to these Iranian Christians and Mandaeans and other religious minorities," Mariko Hirose, who serves as the litigation director for International Refugee Assistance Project in New York, told the Washington Free Beacon.
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 Iranians had traveled to Vienna from Tehran at the invitation of the U.S. government to complete their applications as part of this unique Lautenberg refugee program.
The program has quietly admitted an estimated 30,000 persecuted Iranians, mainly Jews and Christians, but also Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is, over the last decade at a near 100 percent acceptance rate without incident, according to U.S. lawmakers familiar with the acceptance record.
However, the Obama administration first started imposing a new vetting process for all asylum applicants in 2016, the first roadblocks for the group of nearly 90 Iranians.
Then in February, after the individuals had already spent nearly a year waiting at an intermediary vetting facility in Vienna—the same facility used for years for the Lautenberg program without incident—the DHS flatly denied the group without providing the reasons behind the decision.
The DHS denials said only that the applicants were being barred from resettling in the U.S. as "a matter of discretion."
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."
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman on Tuesday ordered DHS to disclose individual reasons for the denials within 14 days of her ruling, which allows the claimants to appeal. The refugees have 90 days to file their appeals, which could reopen their cases.
If they are once again denied, DHS would have to follow their own regulations and provide a substantive reason for the denials, according to Hirose.
In addressing the unique aspects of the Lautenberg Amendment, which governs this group's applications, Freeman wrote that DHS "retains an enormous amount of authority and discretion to adjudicate refugee applications, but they do not have the discretion to violate the law."
The vague DHS denial notices, the judge said, leaves the applicants in an untenable position.
"Without a reason for the denial, the applicants are left to guess at which factors and circumstances DHS considered," she said. "Any meaningful review of the denials becomes impossible because plaintiffs are effectively shadowboxing against themselves."
Evidence that applications of at least 38 of the individuals denied admission in February received "identical notices of ineligibility raises the inference that the denials were not, in fact, individualized," she continued.
Hirose says Congress was very clear when it passed the Lautenberg Amendment that if the U.S. government denies an asylum claim, it must provide a reason "to the maximum extent feasible."
The mass denials were such a devastating blow because the group of Iranians had already uprooted from their home country, leaving jobs and selling possessions and expected a smooth transition to the United States.
After previous asylum seekers left Iran, they were able to travel onward to the United States in just a few months, Hirose said.
"That's how this program used to be, and it was really a surprise and completely unprecedented when these mass denials happened in February," she said.
The group's plight has attracted the attention and support of key lawmakers in Congress who called on Vice President Pence to intervene on their behalf in late January.
Reps. Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.), co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, sent a letter to Pence arguing that the Lautenberg Amendment requires DHS to presume that all Iranian religious minorities are eligible for refugee status in the United States.
"DHS and State must make every effort to continue to accept thousands of Iranian religious minorities currently waiting in Iran and take steps to prioritize and expedite any relevant security checks," they added.
They also highlighted Pence's and other Trump administration officials' repeated promises to come to the defense of persecuted Christians in Iran and throughout the Middle East.
"You have made clear that the Trump administration will take the lead in helping to end these persecutions," they wrote. "In Vienna, Austria, there are 100 victims of persecution waiting for the United States to act. Thank you for doing what you can to move DHS and State to accept these refugees."
A White House official told the Free Beacon in January that the administration is paying "careful attention to the issue" and was working to find a solution.
"High-level administration officials are monitoring the progress," the official said. "Certain complexities exist that the administration has to work through, including human-rights concerns and national security. But the administration is certainly engaged."