Reps. Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.) want answers from the Trump administration about the reasons behind a Department of Homeland Security decision to deny refugee status in the United States for dozens of Iranian Christians and other Iranian religious minorities.
The congressman, co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, on Tuesday said they are disappointed that DHS has denied asylum to a large percentage of a group of roughly 100 Iranians fleeing religious persecution in Iran.
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Roughly 76 to 80 members of the group, which is largely Christian but also includes Zoroastrians, Mandeans, and at least one Jewish family, reportedly received notice of the DHS denial on Monday, while the rest remain "under investigation" and have yet to receive a clear answer.
The group, which applied for refugee status under a U.S. law reserved for persecuted minorities from Iran, Ukraine, and former Soviet countries known as the Lautenberg amendment, has been waiting in limbo in Vienna for more than a year while the U.S. government evaluates their cases.
The U.S. government has yet to say whether those denied asylum will be sent back to Iran, where human rights activists argue they will face even more severe persecution and possible death for trying to emigrate to the United States.
"These Iranians are member of religious minorities fleeing a regime that has brutally oppressed their communities since 1979," Hultgren and McGovern said in a statement. "This being the case, they should be presumed eligible for admittance to the United States as refugees under the Lautenberg Amendment."
"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."
Hultgren and McGovern late last month sent Vice President Mike Pence a letter asking that the Trump administration follow the Lautenberg amendment, which Pence voted to re-authorize while a House member, and grant the Iranians asylum. The sudden change in policy, from near 100 percent acceptance to forcing a group to wait in limbo in Vienna for more than a year waiting for a U.S. government decision, "makes no sense," they said.
"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.
Neither the State Department nor the vice president's office responded to requests for further comment about reports of the Monday denials.
In late January, a White House official told the Washington 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."
A State Department spokesperson on Monday said the U.S. government is unable to comment about the number of denials or reasons for them.
"These individuals were subject to the same rigorous process for resettlement as all refugees and, following input from all relevant departments and agencies, the applications for resettlement were denied," the spokesperson said. "The applicants have an opportunity to request a review of the decision if they wish."
The spokesperson also said that the U.S. would not "force anyone to return to Iran," and said the U.S. and Austrian governments are trying to find other "protection options" for the rejected refugee applicants.
"The United States, the Government of Austria and others are working together on protection options for denied applicants that could include resettlement or asylum elsewhere."
The hurdles for the group of 100 Iranians began in the fall of 2016 during the Obama administration, so those monitoring the Lautenberg asylum process did not believe the Trump administration's new refugee and immigration restrictions would impact the program. Yet, reports of the denials this week are sparking new concern that the Trump administration may be trying to end the program even though it is specifically authorized by Congress.
Human rights activists argue that the Lautenberg amendment gives the applicants expedited status, even though they go through extensive U.S. screening procedures and documentation.
By the time the applicants reach Vienna, Austria, where the State Department has established a resettlement support center, they have already proved that they are members of a persecuted religious minority and have specified someone in the U.S., usually a close family member, as their financial sponsor, the activists argue.
Once in Vienna, the applicants undergo additional interviews and screening by DHS officials. At that point, the process of gaining entry into the U.S. previously only took a matter of weeks to three months. The applicants are particularly vulnerable, activists warn, because they have usually sold all of their possessions back in Iran and are paying thousands of dollars for temporary housing in Vienna.
U.S. government officials told the Free Beacon in January that the Trump administration was trying to find a solution that would prevent any refugee applicants who are denied from being forced to return to Iran, especially after the recent government crackdown on protesters and dissidents.
Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, has argued the Trump administration could find an alternative home for the refugees if it determined they could not come to the United States for security reasons.
She pointed to the way the Obama administration found a home in Bermuda for members of the Taliban the U.S. government held for years at Guantanamo Bay.
"It's unconscionable to send them back," Shea said of the group of 100 Iranian refugee applicants stranded in Vienna. "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."