Reps. Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.) are pressing Vice President Mike Pence to help find a solution for 100 Iranians—most of them Christians or members of other Iranian religious minorities—who have been in limbo in Vienna for more than a year awaiting entrance into the United States.
The U.S. government earlier this month threatened the group of roughly 100 Iranians with deportation back to Iran in the middle of that government's crackdown on protesters, according to human rights activists.
The activists said sending them back to Iran would endanger their lives because they would likely be jailed and tortured for trying to emigrate to the United States.
Hultgren and McGovern, co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, on Tuesday sent Pence a letter arguing that the Lautenberg amendment requires the Department of Homeland Security to presume that all Iranian religious minorities are eligible for refugee status in the United States.
The lawmakers accused the DHS and the State Department of violating the law by "preventing these Iranian Christians, along with other oppressed Iranian religious minorities, from entering the United States to escape persecution."
"This sudden change in policy—from almost a hundred percent acceptance rate to nearly complete rejection—makes no sense," the lawmakers wrote. "The law is clear: These applicants should be presumed eligible for refugee status. DHS and the State Department should admit them as soon as possible."
"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.
The agencies should explain the reasons for any applications that are denied, they said.
"Mr. Vice President, you have been so eloquent in your defense of Christians persecuted in Iran and throughout the Middle East," they wrote. "You have made clear that the Trump administration will take the lead in helping to end these persecutions. 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 week and a half ago, human rights activists and U.S. government officials told the Washington Free Beacon that the Trump administration was trying to negotiate a resolution that would prevent Austria from deporting the 100 Iranians back to their home country.
A White House official at the time told the Free Beacon that the administration is "paying careful attention to the issue."
"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."
Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said sending the 100 Iranians back to Iran during a crackdown on dissidents could amount to a "death sentence" for them.
She pointed to the estimated 3,700 dissidents that the Iranian government had arrested during the protests earlier this month and noted that at least two dozen of those protesters were killed by the Iranian police or members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Twenty-two reportedly died in the protests and five in Iranian prisons.
"It's unconscionable to send them back—we did not even do that to Taliban terrorists at Gitmo prison, those from China whom we feared would face persecution if we sent them back home. Instead, we found a permanent home for them in Bermuda."
Shea was referring to a secretive 2009 deal between the Obama administration and the Bermuda government to bring four Uighur members of the Taliban to the island, where they remain.
The White House did not immediately respond to letter from Hultgren and McGovern. The State Department declined to provide an update on the status of the group of Iranians and did not respond to a request for comment on the letter from Hultgren and McGovern.
State Department officials have declined to say exactly why they are denying the current group of Iranians into the United States, but have stressed that they view U.S. citizens’ security as "paramount" in decisions related to asylum seekers.
"The safety and security of the American people are paramount," Cheryl Harris, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration told the Free Beacon in mid-January. "Iranian refugee applicants under this program are subject to the same security vetting process that apply to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America."
Hultgren and McGovern also reminded the vice president that he voted for an update to the Lautenberg amendment to provide a legal assumption of eligibility for refugee status for Iranian religious minorities while he was a House member in 2003.
The Lautenberg amendment is a 27-year-old law passed by Congress to help Jews escape persecution in the former Soviet Union. Following a 2004 update of the law, the State Department has helped tens of thousands of Iranian Jews, Christians, Baha'is and other religious minorities who were at risk in their home countries to resettle in the United States.
They also reminded him that the State Department has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern for violations of religious liberty and noted that the State Department established a resettlement support center in Vienna, Austria to facilitate the processing of refugee applications from persecuted religious minorities in Iran.
The Austrian Embassy in Iran for years granted these prospective refugees transit visas to come from Vienna with every applicant financially sponsored by someone in the United Sates, usually a close family member, they noted.
"Give their legal presumption of eligibility under the revised Lautenberg Amendment, these refugee applicant cases were processed expeditiously, and a vast majority approved for entry in to the U.S.," they wrote. "Last year, however, something changed, and the Department of Homeland Security and State Department are now thwarting the purpose of this law by failing to grant the presumption of eligibility to these applicants."
The lawmakers said that State and DHS are telling the group of Iranians in legal limbo in Vienna has told the applicants only that their applications are pending "background security checks."
"They do not explain why applications that previously took only a month to process are now stalled for over a year," they wrote. "Meanwhile, the applicants have reportedly run out of money, living hand-to-mouth while Austria has stopped granting transit visa to those who qualify for the program [who are] still in Iran."