Carlos Barria / Reuters

When the Iranian woman and her husband sold their belongings and traveled to Austria with their child two years ago, she says they believed they would be joining their families in the United States.

When I was at the [U.S.] visa interview, the officer congratulated me,” she told me through an interpreter. “I even … received a letter … two to three weeks later, saying we had been approved” for resettlement in the United States. But months later, their hopes of moving to the U.S. were devastated when she and 86 other Iranian religious minorities, also in Austria, received a letter in February from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that said their applications had been rejected “as a matter of discretion.”

“We did not at all expect this,” said the Christian woman, who spoke to me from Vienna on the condition of anonymity. “It was complete shock.”

The story of the Iranian Christians is indicative of the Trump administration’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers. Donald Trump has criticized the U.S. intake of refugees and appointed skeptics of immigration and U.S. refugee policy to top positions in his  administration. The Department of Homeland Security has separated families on the southern border with Mexico and made seeking asylum there more difficult. The program to bring persecuted Iranian minorities to the United States has also been adversely affected.  

That program is a modification of the 1990 Lautenberg Amendment, which helped Soviet Jews arrive in the U.S. That law was expanded in 2004 to include religious minorities from Iran. But because the U.S. and Iran don’t have diplomatic relations, U.S. officials cannot travel to Iran to interview potential refugees. Under an arrangement between the United States and Austria, Iranian religious minorities with a well-founded fear of persecution travel to Vienna, where they are screened by American officials for their final processing before being resettled in the U.S. The process usually takes a few months. The 87 Iranian Christians have been in Vienna for more than a year.

“It’s a very disastrous situation. We are living under very difficult conditions,” the woman said. “We don’t have proper health care, amenities, and we also have to pay rent … Because we don’t have work permits, we can’t work.”

After receiving the DHS letter, the Iranians stranded in Vienna filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration’s decision. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman, of the Northern District of California, ruled in their favor. She said the department’s blanket order to the 87 Iranian Christians violated the Lautenberg Act, which required that “each decision to deny an application for refugee status … shall be in writing and shall state, to the maximum extent feasible, the reason for the denial.” Additionally, she ordered the department to either reopen processing for each applicant or deny their application within 14 days of the order. The department has reopened processing for each of the 87 applicantsand could rule either way on each case. “DHS retains an enormous amount of authority and discretion to adjudicate refugee applications,” Freeman wrote, “but they do not have the discretion to violate the law.”

Mariko Hirose, the litigation director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which represented the Iranians, told me it is unclear how long it’ll take for DHS to review the 87 rejections individually. “It is completely anomalous what happened here,” she said. “It has been a really difficult, tough situation for them,” she said of the Iranians. “It’s been a complete nightmare.” Hirose added that she was encouraged by DHS reopening the cases, and said she hoped the department “will look closely at” them.

“This is a program that has been historically successful. Nearly 100 percent of the Iranian religious minorities who traveled [since 2004] to Vienna were admitted in the United States,” she said, adding that her group was “very much hoping that they’ll finally be able to come to the United States and reunite with their families.”

The legal limbo in which the Iranian Christians find themselves comes despite the Trump administration’s emphasis on religious freedom in Iran and around the world, as well its pressure campaign on the Islamic Republic to, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, provide “Iranians in Iran … the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy.” Speaking last month in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence sent a “message to the long-suffering people of Iran: Even as we stand strong against the threats and malign actions of your leaders in Tehran, know that we are with you. We pray for you. And we urge you, the good people of Iran, to press on with courage in the cause of freedom and a peaceful future for your people.”

But just as the U.S. chides Iran for its human-rights and religious-freedom records, the Trump administration has placed the Islamic Republic on a list of nations whose citizens are forbidden from traveling to the U.S. under most circumstances. The Iranian Christian woman in Vienna said she watched Pence’s remarks and was surprised by what she heard. “How come despite what Mike Pence spoke about a few days ago, and despite the fact that the Trump administration is acknowledging what’s going on in Iran with religious minorities, they’re still not letting us in?” she asked me. “Why is that?”

The Trump administration’s policy toward the Iranian Christians stranded in Vienna is not isolated. It is part of a coordinated effort to reduce overall immigration into the U.S., including the numbers of refugees, as signaled by President Trump himself. While still a presidential candidate, Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, and for a total ban on Syrian refugees while their country was being torn apart by a brutal civil war that has spawned the most severe refugee crisis since World War II. One of his first acts as president was to order a ban on travel from several Muslim countries  (though the vast majority of the world’s Muslims can still enter the U.S.). He has criticized legal immigration from “shithole countries” and asked why more Norwegians weren’t moving to the United States. He has ordered—and ultimately reversed—the separation of families on the U.S. border with Mexico in order to deter illegal immigration, and made it more difficult for Central Americans fleeing violence to claim asylum.

Trump has assembled just the kind of team that will help him achieve his goals. Ronald Mortensen, the president’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, is a critic of illegal immigration (though his comments have not touched upon refugees or the asylum process). Andrew Veprek, who is seen as skeptical of the U.S. refugee program, is now the deputy assistant secretary at PRM, as the refugee bureau is known; he previously worked at the White House with Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s senior advisers who supports lower immigration to the U.S., and who is the architect of the plan to reduce the U.S. refugee intake. Additionally, Jon Feere, another immigration skeptic, is a senior adviser to Thomas Homan, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Trump basically wants to end immigration to the United States in any way, shape, or form—and remove immigrants from this country as much as he possibly can, particularly if they are brown, or black, or Asian,” Elizabeth Holtzman, who resigned from an advisory panel at DHS in protest of the family separations, told me. Holtzman is a former Democratic congresswoman who was one of the authors of the 1980 Refugee Act, the Reagan-era legislation that cemented the U.S. refugee-settlement program as part of American foreign policy. She told me that the legislation “was noncontroversial at the time it was written.” At the time, she said, the U.S. was in the process of admitting 750,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, along with hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Soviet Jews.

“They all made a substantial contribution to the United States,” Holtzman said. “And it was all done basically without much controversy—so we can accept refugees.”

Overall, the U.S. has accepted more than 3 million refugees since the 1970s, more than any country in the world. The U.S. did reduce its intake of refugees, and indeed all immigrants, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, but in the years since then, the numbers have steadily increased. “There was a tradition in the U.S. of bipartisan support dating back to 1980 for bringing refugees from around the world to the U.S. under this program,” Anne Richard, the Obama-era assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migrants, told me. The Syrian conflict and the massive refugee crisis it spawned prompted President Barack Obama to increase the ceiling on refugees being accepted by the U.S. from 70,000 to 85,000 to 111,000. “And then, of course, when the Trump administration came in, they threw the whole thing in reverse,” said Richard, who is now a professor at Georgetown University.

Last year, the Trump administration reduced the cap on the number of refugees being resettled in the United States to 45,000, its lowest figure since the passage of the Refugee Act. So far this year, the U.S. has resettled about 14,300 people. News reports say the Trump administration is considering a figure of 25,000 as the ceiling for next year’s refugee intake; speculation that the PRM bureau will be cut from the State Department also refuses to go away. Still, Trump administration officials say the U.S. continues to be the single-largest national donor for refugee-related projects around the world, and add that the U.S. is focused on resettling refugees closer to their homes. But, as Richard told me, the overwhelming majority of refugees do end up in neighboring countries with the hope of returning home someday.

“But what [Trump] fails to acknowledge and recognize is that for some refugees there is no going home again,” she said. “People who were tortured, people whose relatives were killed by their neighbors … that’s what the U.S. program did. It offered a fresh start for the most vulnerable among the refugees.”

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