In recent weeks, approximately 100 Iranian Christian asylum-seekers have been denied entry to the U.S. Religious and human rights leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle have condemned the denials, which put the asylum-seekers’ lives in danger.
By Alicia J. Adams
Immigration is a hot topic in the current political arena, but unlike economic migrants, people groups seeking asylum as a result of religious or political persecution are, historically, more likely to draw a compassionate response from the United States.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 67.75 million “persons of concern” globally at the end of 2016. Persons of concern are those who are displaced, or likely to be, because of war, conflict, persecution, or human rights violations.
The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration within the Department of State manages the United States refugee program. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is responsible for vetting applicants before their applications are approved.
According to a State Department spokesperson: “A refugee is someone who has fled because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
The Lautenberg Amendment helps persecuted religious minorities
In 1990, Congress enacted an amendment, written by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ, b. 1924 – d. 2013), as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which created a special category of persecuted religious minorities, allowing members of the group to apply for refugee status in the United States without having to prove that they were oppressed or persecuted. (The Immigration and Nationality Act requires other types of prospective refugees to “establish a well-founded fear of persecution on a case-by-case basis.”) At the time, the Lautenberg Amendment was specific to asylum-seekers, primarily Jews and some evangelical Christians, in the former Soviet Union.
In 1999, HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, interviewed Lautenberg about the legislation. “I was very much aware of the harassment, persecution, intimidation that was used against various citizens in totalitarian Soviet Union,” Lautenberg said. After a 1989 trip to the former Soviet Union where he witnessed anti-Semitism and mistreatment of those who expressed an interest in religion, the senator decided to do something to help.
“I wrote a law that permits people to come to this country without having to prove persecution or harassment — to say, ‘I’m a member of the Jewish faith,’ ‘I’m a Seventh-day Adventist,’ ‘I’m a Roman Catholic.’ And places where they were discriminated against, they could just come here as refugees.”
“Anything that removes uncertainty in a long and scary process would have made a huge difference to my family,” said Gary Trakhman, a software engineer from Baltimore, Md. Trakhman’s family immigrated from Moldova (former Soviet Union) to the United States in 1989, a few months before the Lautenberg Amendment took effect. He was 5. “Asylum seekers become loyal and hard-working citizens.”
Trakhman’s family is Jewish and faced extreme religious persecution in their home country. “The whole process took about a year and a half. There was a large exit of Jewish immigrants around that time due to the political problems of the USSR,” Trakhman said. “Additionally, my grandfather had been politically persecuted (lost his job) for speaking up as a concerned citizen. I have since heard stories of, for example, bribing doctors with meat [in exchange] for healthcare. Needless to say, it was no longer a good situation.”
In 1994, the law was expanded with the Specter Amendment to include religious minorities, including Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, and others, from Iran. In recent years, most Lautenberg Amendment beneficiaries have come from this territory.
The State Department spokesperson continued: “The Lautenberg Amendment applies only to nationals of the countries of the former Soviet Union and Iran, who are members of certain religious minorities in those countries. It is a statutory provision that defines certain categories of refugees for whom less evidence is needed to establish refugee status for purposes of resettlement to the United States. Each fiscal year, the Amendment expires and requires Congressional renewal. Refugee resettlement applicants under this program are subject to the same stringent security vetting processes that apply to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America.”
Lautenberg tells the story of a time he was riding in a Boston taxi. He noted the driver’s Russian accent. “I said, ‘How’d you get here?’ and he said, ‘I came under the Lautenberg Law.’ I said, ‘I’m Lautenberg.’ He said, ‘No!’ I said, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘No!’ I said, ‘Yes!’ Finally I convinced him. Then he didn’t want to take the money for the fare,” Lautenberg laughed. “I’m proud of the new citizens, the new-comers who come from the former Soviet Union and make a contribution in this country.”
Three levels of admission priority
The overseas refugee processing system has three levels of priority for admission. Priority 1: individuals facing compelling security concerns. Priority 2: members of specific groups of special humanitarian concern (this group includes those applying under the Lautenberg Amendment). Priority 3: family reunification for those whose close relatives have been admitted as refugees or granted asylum.
According to the State Department, “The United States continues to admit refugees due to persecution based on religion.” However, there are concerns that the Amendment is at risk under the immigration policies of the current administration.
In recent weeks, approximately 100 Iranian Christian asylum-seekers, who have been waiting in Austria for 15 months while their Lautenberg-based refugee applications were processed, have been denied entry to the U.S. Most are sponsored by relatives already living in the United States. Historically, approval in these cases is near 100 percent.
Religious and human rights leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle have condemned the denials, which put the asylum-seekers’ lives in danger, especially if they are forced to return to their home country, because Iran now views them as enemies of the state.
According to a March 1, 2018, New York Times article, “Refugee arrivals have slowed to a trickle since President Trump, who took office vowing to overhaul immigration, cut the number of people that the United States agreed to admit. But Mr. Trump also promised to protect religious minorities, particularly Christians, and his administration has condemned Iran’s treatment of them.”
The article quotes H. Avakian, 35, an ethnic Armenian Christian who arrived in Austria from Iran 15 months ago. “It’s unexplainable,” he said. “Suddenly they said, ‘Now you can’t come.’ We don’t know why.”
Effect of Trump administration immigration restrictions
Most analysts believe the denials are related to President Donald Trump’s restrictions on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, because religious refugees from the Ukraine continue to arrive without delay.
The law has allowed hundreds of thousands to escape life-threatening persecution and begin new lives in the United States. However, the State Department doesn’t keep statistics on the persecution grounds on which refugees are admitted to the United States, so it’s impossible to know exactly how many have benefitted due to that specific amendment.
The Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Refugee Processing Center statistics show that 11,454 Seventh-day Adventist refugees came to the United States between 2002 and 2017. Most of those (6,873) were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Russia and Ukraine accounted for approximately 1,300. From Iran, just 12.
Some argue that the Lautenberg Amendment is an antiquated religious test and should be either expanded and updated to include all the Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious minorities who endure persecution in Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and elsewhere — or it should be eliminated because it gives Christians and Jews an unfair advantage.
Although the Lautenberg Amendment has been reapproved for FY2018, the president determines how it works day-to-day by setting the total number of refugees allowed each year, by restricting those from particular countries, and by setting the general tone for immigration policy. So the future of the amendment’s application remains to be seen.
To learn more, visit the State Department (state.gov), U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (uscis.gov), the Refugee Processing Center (wrapsnet.org), and the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom (uscirf.gov).
Alicia J. Adams is a freelance journalist and graphic designer based in Boise, Idaho.
Photo: DepositPhotos.com – For illustrative purposes only.