By Sarah Parvini
Even as it cracked down on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa, the Trump administration stressed that the safety of Christians in the region would be a priority.
In recent months, however, dozens of religious minorities from Iran have seen their asylum claims denied despite a decades-old program designed to help them. Many have been left stranded in Austria, unable to go home and unsure whether they’ll ever make it to the U.S.
The administration in February rejected the cases of 87 Iranian refugees — an unprecedented move for a program with a near 100% acceptance rate, attorneys said. The government did not provide a reason for the denials, saying it was “a matter of discretion.”
Some of the refugees, who had traveled to Vienna as part of the asylum process, and family members in the United States filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In July, a judge ordered the government to reconsider those cases and said it must disclose individual reasons for the denials, which would allow the applicants to file an appeal. The government estimates it will make final decisions in the reopened cases this month.
“Our clients have faced serious persecution in Iran due to their religion,” said Kate Meyer, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project. “It’s impacted their ability to work, to go to school, to seek medical care for themselves or their children.”
Applications under the Lautenberg-Specter program began stalling in late 2016, Meyer said.
Enacted in 1989 to facilitate resettlement of Jews from what was then the Soviet Union, the program later was expanded to include non-Muslims from Iran. Run in partnership with the Austrian government, it requires refugees to have a U.S. sponsor who will cover the costs associated with their travel as well as the typical three- to six-month stay in Vienna. Many eventually move to California, advocates said, because of the large Iranian and Armenian diaspora.
More than 10,100 Iranian religious minorities have resettled under the Lautenberg program since the 2004 fiscal year, the government said.
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