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 applicants—and 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.”