The Department of Homeland Security has re-opened the asylum applications of a group of 87 Iranian Christians and other religious minorities who have been marooned in Austria for more than a year awaiting a final decision.
Lawyers for the group said the latest DHS action, which they were notified about last week, reversed an earlier blanket denial of their refugee applications back in February and could be a breakthrough in allowing them to reunite with other family members already living in the United States.
"We were very happy to hear that the government re-opened these cases, and we're hoping this will bring them closer to being able to reunite with their families," Mariko Hirose, who serves as the litigation director for the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"This is a specific group of people who this administration and several prior administrations has recognized have been persecuted and have committed to helping," she added. "We hope that the government will process these cases quickly, so our clients can reach the safety of the United States."
DHS did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department referred all questions on the matter to DHS.
The group has earned the sympathy and concern of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress, as well as several high-level Trump administration officials.
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom who just weeks ago held the first-ever four-day ministerial on religious persecution across the globe, has said he has been involved in several high-level discussions about this group of Iranian Christians and other religious minorities stuck in Austria.
"I hope there is a positive outcome," Brownback recently told the Free Beacon while declining to comment further.
A Trump administration official on Monday declined to comment on the specific cases, saying: "the administration is strongly committed to supporting the Iranian people."
"Since January 2017, over 800 Iranian religious minorities have been approved for admissions to the United States through this program and have been successfully resettled in the U.S."
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.
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 viability of program is now in jeopardy with such a large group of applicants remaining in legal limbo overseas.
Around 900 Iranian minorities were invited to Vienna in 2016 under the Lautenberg program, according to knowledgeable sources. In the final months of the Obama administration that year, DHS tightened the asylum application process for unspecified security reasons.
In 2017, 800 members of this group were allowed to come to the United States, but roughly 100 of them were not and were later rejected in early 2018. No others were admitted in 2018.
Advocates for the group argue that the timing of the decision, which comes amid the Trump administration's renewed sanctions on Iran and vocal support of average Iranians rising up in protest against Tehran's tyrannical regime, should bode well for the group's chances if the Trump administration stands by its statements.
In a speech at the Reagan library in late July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically highlighted the plight of persecuted Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Sufi Muslims, Baha'is and Zoroastrians "inside Iran who live with the fear that their next prayer may be indeed their last."
This group of 87 Iranians cannot return to Iran or they would be treated as infidel traitors, imprisoned or worse. So far, four members of the same group have opted to settle in Austria instead of continuing to wait for admission to the United States, according to sources familiar with the group.
"Failing to take responsibility for resolving these cases in a humanitarian way—that is by arranging safe places of refuge for them here or elsewhere, as we did with Gitmo terrorists—would effectively kill the Lautenberg process," said Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer who runs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
"Abandoning these Iranian minorities and leaving them to their fate back in Iran after they left that country to resettle in the ‘Great Satan' would be heartless and unfair," she continued. "It would also discredit the State Department's strong—and warranted—condemnations of religious persecution by Tehran and render them mere propaganda."
The DHS decision to re-open the cases was not entirely voluntary; it came only after a California judge ordered the agency to disclose individual reasons for the denials. Instead, DHS decided to reconsider their cases.
The group's advocates hope that the move is not just another delaying tactic but will actually lead to approving their resettlement in the United States.