A federal court ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration wrongly denied asylum to dozens of Iranian Christians and other religious minorities who were invited to seek asylum in the United States under a congressionally enacted program.
Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the Trump administration violated the Lautenberg Amendment by rejecting resettlement for a group of about 87 Iranian religious minorities who were invited to leave their homes and travel to Vienna, Austria, to be processed for resettlement into the United States to live with their families and worship without fear of persecution.
The Lautenberg Amendment was originally enacted in 1990 to facilitate the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union but was later expanded to include religious minorities in the Shia Muslim nation of Iran. Many of the Iranian asylum seekers in Vienna had been waiting for about a year to finally be resettled into the United States under the Lautenberg-Specter program but were sent notices of ineligibility in February and risked being deported back to Iran.
Although the judge notes that no person is entitled to resettlement under the Lautenberg Amendment and that discretion of resettlement lies under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security, she states that the mass denial of the group violated the amendment because the government did not state "to the maximum extent feasible" the reason for the denial.
"DHS retains an enormous amount of authority and discretion to adjudicate refugee applications, but they do not have the discretion to violate the law," Freeman wrote in the order.
Freeman ordered the DHS to re-open the refugee applications or deny the plaintiffs within 14 days and to do so in a way that complies with the terms of the Lautenberg Amendment.
"The court takes no position on, and has no authority to review, the ultimate determination of plaintiffs' applications, so long as any re-issued notices comply with the Lautenberg Amendment and agency procedures," the ruling states.
The case was heard on June 22. The refugees were represented by the International Refugee Assistance Project and San Francisco-based attorney Belinda Lee from the law firm of Latham & Watkins.
"The U.S. government had abandoned our Iranian refugee clients in a terrible, Kafkaesque situation — they had left their homes in Iran, sold their belongings, and traveled to Vienna with every expectation that they would soon be united with their family members in U.S., only to be told that their admission was denied 'as a matter of discretion,'" IRAP litigation director Mariko Hirose said in a statement. "We are heartened that the court recognized that the government cannot simply violate the explicit, heightened protections that Congress gave to this group of refugees."
The Christian Post reached out to DHS for comment on the court's order. A response is pending.
The denial of the Iranian refugees comes as the Lautenberg program has seen a near perfect acceptance rate. According to IRAP, nearly 100 percent of previous refugees who participated in the program were admitted in a matter of months.
"Congress originally enacted the Lautenberg Amendment to shelter and safeguard vulnerable populations, so we are thrilled to see the amendment being applied in this instance, thereby ensuring that our clients can find safety and security in the United States," Lee said in a statement. "It's not an exaggeration to call this a victory for the rule of law."
Although the program has a high acceptance rate, human right lawyer Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute pointed out in a March op-ed that the Obama administration in late 2016 instituted a new, secret security layer to the program's vetting.
Shea had previously suggested that even if the Trump administration has a real security concern about resettling the Iranian refugees in the U.S., the government could find an alternate solution like it has done in the past.
She pointed to an instance in which the Obama administration relocated former Taliban members held in Guantanamo Bay to Bermuda.
Reps. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., and James P. McGovern, D-Mass., who co-chair the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, voiced their disappointment with the situation in February after it was reported that the visas had been denied to the Iranian refugees.
"After years of successful and prompt admittance of Iranian religious minorities to the United States under the Lautenberg program, DHS must provide Congress with details about these visa denials," the congressmen said in a joint statement." And whatever the reasons, we hope the other persecuted Iranians temporarily residing in Austria will receive prompt approvals: their safety and security should be our top priority."
Government officials previously told The Washington Free Beacon in January that they were trying to find an alternate solution.
Since Trump took office, his administration has greatly slowed the number of refugees being resettled into the United States.
In fiscal year 2018, the government has resettled a total of 16,844 refugees as of July 11, according to the Refugee Processing Center database. That comes as over 53,716 refugees were resettled in fiscal year 2017 under Trump and former President Barack Obama, and 84,994 were resettled under the Obama administration in fiscal year 2016.
In the month of June, the government resettled 1,899 refugees. By comparison, the administration resettled 2,852 refugees in June 2017. In June 2016, the Obama administration resettled 8,367 refugees into the U.S.
The U.S. is on pace to be well under the 45,000 refugee limit the president set for fiscal year 2018.