Despite vowing to help vulnerable Christians around the world, the Trump administration is making it harder for Christian refugees to enter the U.S., including a group of Iranian Christians who remain in legal limbo in Austria awaiting a decision on their fate expected as soon as Wednesday.
The number of Christian refugees granted entry into the U.S. has dropped by more than 40 percent over the past year, a decline of almost 11,000 refugees. They have been caught in the wider net of President Donald Trump’s tough stance on immigration and refugees, which has lowered overall refugee admissions by the same percentage.
Even Christians from the Middle East who have lived in the U.S. for years have been caught in the administration’s wider crackdown on immigration, with dozens of Iraqi Christians now in detention and facing the threat of deportation.
The contrast between the administration’s rhetoric and its actionshas disappointed Christian activists and prompted accusations of hypocrisy from rights organizations and members of Congress.
“Ironically, these policies, while clearly aimed at Muslim refugees, ensure that Christians and other religious minorities from many of the countries on Trump’s list of suspect travel ban nations are also kept out,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of Refugee Council USA. “It suggests that the president has no real interest in religious persecution or the tenets of religious freedom.”
But a Trump administration spokesperson rejected the criticism. “The administration has made helping persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East a top priority,” the official said, citing humanitarian aid delivered to Christians and other vulnerable communities in northern Iraq.
The plight of 87 Iranian refugees illustrates how Trump’s tough line on refugees from mostly Muslim countries has also closed the door to Christians and other religious minorities trying to flee to safety in the U.S.
The group of Iranians is mostly Christian, including Armenians and Aramaic-speaking Assyrians, but there are also representatives of other religious minorities — Zoroastrians, Mandeans and Jews. The Iranians have been stuck in a legal purgatory in Austria, some for as long as two years, as they await entry into the U.S.
This week they expect to learn whether the U.S. government will issue them visas, in individual decisions issued by the Department of Homeland Security expected Wednesday.
The Iranians in Austria applied for admission to the U.S. under the Lautenberg-Specter program, which was designed as a pathway to America — via a short stay for processing in Vienna — for religious minorities fleeing oppression from the former Soviet Union and Iran.
Until now the program — which dates back to the Cold War — has operated smoothly for years, with an acceptance rate close to 100 percent. But due to unprecedented delays, the short stay has stretched into as long as two years for some of the Iranians in Vienna, where they are unable to work and have become destitute.
After the Iranians were denied visas with only cursory explanations, a refugee rights organization, the International Refugee Assistance Project, successfully sued the U.S. government in a class action suit on behalf of the Iranians and their family members, accusing DHS of violating the terms of the Lautenberg law.
Under a federal court order, DHS must provide specific reasons if they again deny entry to the refugees.
One of the refugees, referred to in anonymous testimony in a court filing as Jane Doe 5, is an Iranian Christian widow stranded in Vienna with her 90-year-old father and disabled son.
After the death of her husband in Iran, she said, “it was extremely difficult for me to secure a job due to the unwillingness of the majority Shiite population to hire Christians.”
She said that her son, who suffered from epileptic seizures, was refused medical attention because doctors “would often refuse to touch him because Christians were ‘unclean.’”
One day she was assaulted in broad daylight at a local market, she said, but chose not to report the incident to police because her assailants warned her she would face criminal punishment.
Her U.S.-based sister-in-law applied on her behalf to the Lautenberg program, which she believed, based on the experience of her acquaintances, “had a near 100 percent acceptance rate” and would require her to stay in Austria for just two to four months.
“I sold most of our possessions at below market rates in the expectation that we would not be returning to Iran,” Doe 5 said.
She traveled to Vienna in Feb. 2017 and was interviewed by DHS personnel. A year later she, her son and her father got identical letters denying their entry, checking a box indicating “other reasons” as the basis.