December 22, 2015

Rep. Schiff Announces Extension of Lautenberg Amendment for Iranian Religious Minorities Fleeing Persecution Included in Omnibus

Washington, D.C. – Congress included a one-year extension of a program to assist Iranian religious minorities fleeing persecution in the FY 2016 omnibus spending bill as the result of a bipartisan effort led by Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Trent Franks (R-AZ). The bill was signed into law by President Obama this week. 
Commonly referred to as the “Lautenberg Amendment,” the provision extends a program established by the State Department and the government of Austria to provide a safe pathway to asylum for Iranian refugees at a critical time when the Iranian regime perpetuates campaigns that vilify Christians, deny the Holocaust and persecute Jews, and incarcerates Baha'i leaders who are put on trial for their beliefs. The provision today predominantly facilitates the resettlement of Iranian Jews, Christians, Baha’is, as well as other historically persecuted religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union, Eastern Ukraine, and Crimea. The provision previously expired on September 30, 2015, and will now  be extended through September 2016.
“The Lautenberg Amendment has served as a lifeline for over two decades to tens of thousands of Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran and the FSU,” Schiff said. “Without it, there would be no recourse or refuge for many of these individuals. I am pleased that Congress supported my request for its extension, which will continue to provide a beacon of hope for those seeking safety from discrimination and abuse solely for their religious beliefs.”
The Lautenberg Amendment was first enacted in 1990 at the request of former Senator Frank R. Lautenberg to provide expedited refugee processing and a presumption of eligibility for historically persecuted religious minority groups from the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. It was then expanded in 2004 to include minority groups from Iran and has since been reauthorized every year.  The program does not provide access to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, but rather eases the burden of proof for the applicant only after the State Department has invited a particular group to apply for refugee status for “reasons of humanitarian concern.”
In FY15, 4,180 cases were admitted to the U.S. using the “Lautenberg” mechanism – this includes 2,362 from the former Soviet Union and 1,818 from Iran that were processed through Vienna.
Renewal of the Lautenberg Amendment is needed because there is no U.S. embassy in Tehran where religious minorities can apply for refugee status.  The provision, therefore, makes it possible for religious minorities to obtain transit visas to Austria where they can safely undergo processing for protection.  Without enactment of this provision, the Austrian government can limit or refuse to grant transit visas for Iranians seeking refugee status, thus eliminating a safe way for these refugees to escape perilous conditions.

Today, the program’s beneficiaries are predominantly Iranian Jews, Christians – including many Armenians, and Baha'is, as well as other religious minorities from the FSU, eastern Ukraine, and Crimea. All individuals who are admitted under the program enter the U.S. as refugees and are, therefore, subject to the annual numerical cap on refugee admissions.  Entrants must also undergo the same criminal and security background checks and rigorous vetting prior to entering the United States.