Nearly a dozen members of a group of 87 Christian and other religious-minority refugees from Iran -- who were marooned in Austria for 2 ½ years -- recently began enjoying a series of joyful reunions with family and friends in Los Angeles. Arriving at the airport to the welcoming arms of aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members seemed almost surreal after their arduous, 29-month travail, lawyers for the group said.
The asylum seekers sold all their worldly possessions and left their jobs and life in Iran only to become stranded in Vienna with little hope they would ultimately make it to the U.S. If forced to return to Iran, they would undoubtedly be labeled traitors and face imprisonment or worse -- a fear that loomed over them as they waited while their funds were depleted week by week, month by month.
While the first group is celebrating the sudden breakthrough in their cases, hard questions remain about the reasons behind the U.S. government's decision to block these refugees from entering the United States after almost all previous applicants under the same program had been accepted.
U.S. citizens and family members had sponsored the refugees' applications for asylum in the United States under the Lautenberg Amendment, a law Congress passed three decades ago to facilitate refugee admission of Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. Lawmakers expanded the program in 2004 to include religious minorities persecuted in Iran.
The program has quietly admitted an estimated 30,000 persecuted Iranians, mainly Jews and Christians, but also Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and members of the Baha'i faith over the last decade, according to U.S. lawmakers familiar with the acceptance record.
Advocates for the group initially believed the 87 were victims of President Trump's highly controversial travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. On further investigation, they traced the denials to stricter vetting procedures for asylum seekers implemented before Trump took office. After the 87 refugees arrived in Vienna, the designated city for further vetting, in 2016, the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security suddenly put the brakes on their applications. DHS later denied their entrance to the U.S. without explanation.
Legal advocates for the group argue that Congress was clear when it passed the Lautenberg Amendment that if the U.S. government denies any asylum claim, it must provide a reason "to the maximum extent feasible." However, no explanation came even after the group's plight attracted the attention and support of a bipartisan group of key members of Congress who called on Vice President Pence to intervene on their behalf in January 2018. A White House official told the Washington Free Beacon early last year that the administration is paying "careful attention to the issue" and was working to find a solution.
"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."
The same day the official issued that statement, Trump declared Jan. 16, 2018 to be Religious Freedom Day and extolled the need to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens to practice the religion of their choice without fear of government reprisal. He also stressed the need to champion religious freedom around the world.
"We will be undeterred in our commitment to monitor religious persecution and implement policies that promote religious freedoms," the president said at the time.
No specific national-security concern with the group was ever disclosed. The lack of a stated risk or problem has led some advocates to believe the 87 were caught up in a tug-of-war between the Trump administration and career officials at both the State Department and DHS who didn't agree with the Lautenberg program offering special priority asylum for Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. They pointed to vague statements like this one by a State Department official about the group's legal limbo in Austria early last year:
"The safety and security of the American people are paramount," said Cheryl Harris, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "Iranian refugee applicants under this program are subject to the same security vetting process that applies to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America."
Advocates countered that the Lautenberg program was specifically expanded by an act of Congress to give persecuted minorities in Iran priority in the vetting process. Moreover, they argued, it's simply not true that these refugees face the same security vetting process as other non-religious minority refugees from Iran or elsewhere.
According to Ann Buwalda, executive director of the Jubilee Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of religious minorities abroad, vetting them is much easier than other non-Christian refugees seeking asylum in the United States. The mostly Christian Iranians in the group of 87 are not converts, but ethnic minority Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent who fled their homeland during Turkish persecution before and during World War I. They have different sounding names than other Iranians, speak a different language, and belong to churches allowed to exist in Iran, though they are heavily discriminated against.
Buwalda has said holding up the group's entry into the U.S. for more than two years is particularly cruel, given that they have already endured generations of persecution in Iran.
Despite the high-level White House attention to the case, the stalemate on the issue continued until lawyers at the International Refugee Assistance Project and Latham & Watkins took up their cause and filed suit on their behalf. A federal judge in California ruled in their favor last July, forcing DHS to re-evaluate their applications on an individual basis. It was only earlier this month that DHS suddenly notified nearly a dozen of those stuck in Vienna that their applications had been approved and they could book airline tickets to the U.S.
Neither DHS nor the State Department has provided an explanation for why these particular individuals were first denied and then recently approved and did not say whether more of the group of 87 would also be granted asylum in the U.S.
"We are not able to comment on the specific reason for the denials or approvals," a State Department spokesperson told RealClearPolitics over the weekend. A DHS spokesperson didn't return a request for comment.
Attorneys for the group of Iranians said the breakthrough is a victory for their clients and the rule of law -- and means that those allowed entrance to the United States would no longer have to live in fear of being deported back to Iran.
"At long last, justice has been served for some of the world's most persecuted religious minorities!" Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said in an emailed statement. "Given that the administration adopted the defense of Middle Eastern religious minorities as a foreign-policy priority and that the Iranian regime is officially designated as a persecutor, this episode is utterly inexplicable."
Shea is now pressing the Trump administration to follow through with its stated foreign policy priority of trying to protect religious minorities in the Middle East, especially those in Iran.
She is calling on Trump to issue a presidential directive and order DHS and the State Department to take actions to "shore up the Lautenberg lifeline for Iran's horribly repressed religious minorities."
Without a proper government explanation for the bizarre episode and additional remedies to help the other Iranians who remain in limbo in Vienna, Shea and other advocates argue that Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have expressed strong support for religious freedom around the globe, risk losing faith with dissidents in Iran and imperiling trust in the Lautenberg program.
Over the past year, opposition forces in Iran have led the strongest protests against the government in Tehran since the so-called Green Revolution in 2009.
During a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library in July, Pompeo denounced Iran's leaders, accusing them of becoming multimillionaires while mismanaging the economy, sponsoring terrorism and bolstering other tyrannical regimes while their own people suffer in poverty.
"Sometimes it seems the world has become desensitized to the regime's authoritarianism at home and its campaigns of violence abroad, but the proud Iranian people are not staying silent about their government's many abuses," he said. "And the United States under President Trump will not stay silent either."
"In light of the protests and 40 years of regime tyranny," Pompeo added, "I have a message for the people of Iran: The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you."