Iranian Jewish men pray during Hanukkah celebrations at the Yousefabad Synagogue in Tehran, Iran.


Tucked into the fiscal year 2012 spending bill the President signed before the holidays was an extension of a provision known as the “Lautenberg Amendment.”  The inclusion of the extension is good news for refugees seeking religious freedom at a time when Congress has deadlocked on immigration issues and legislative victories are few and far between.

The Lautenberg Amendment, originally enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, established a presumption of eligibility for refugee status for certain categories of people from Southeast Asia, as well as religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) seeking to resettle as refugees in the United States. Today, the Lautenberg Amendment serves primarily to facilitate the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, which was added to the Lautenberg Amendment in 2004, while it continues to cover religious minorities from the FSU.

Under a program—established by the U.S. State Department and negotiated with the government of Austria—members of certain Iranian religious minority groups are eligible to receive visas to travel to Austria, where they can be safe while the U.S. government processes their applications for refugee resettlement. This arrangement is a lifeline for Iranian religious minorities, since the United States has no embassy in Iran and cannot interview applicants there. Without the Lautenberg Amendment, this small but critical program for Iranian religious minority refugees would end.

The Lautenberg Amendment has been extended on appropriations legislation each year since it was first enacted in 1990. However, in fiscal year 2011, the Lautenberg Amendment was only extended for part of the year and it expired on June 1, 2011. The main obstacle to renewal was the objection of Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over refugee-related legislation and objected to the inclusion of the Lautenberg Amendment on appropriations legislation. In spite of the fact that each year, Chairman Smith presides over a consultation with the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services on the U.S. Refugee Program, he alleged that the refugee program has not received sufficient Congressional oversight. Urged by constituents and congressional colleagues to extend the Lautenberg Amendment, Chairman Smith ultimately compromised, agreeing to allow an extension through June 1, 2011 to be included in the fiscal year 2011 spending bill.

Strong bi-partisan support, demonstrated by letters signed by 21 senators and 108 House members to House and Senate leadership urging that the amendment be extended, led to the provision being included in the 2012 spending bill that Congress passed before leaving Washington for the winter holiday recess. Senators Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Kirk (R-IL), and Representatives Franks (R-AZ), Wolf (R-VA), Berman (D-CA) and Waxman (D-CA) led the efforts to renew the extension. HIAS, the Jewish Federations of North America, and other national and local Jewish groups, along with the National Association of Evangelicals and World Relief and partners in the International Religious Freedom Roundtable representing a broad array of faiths and political views, worked together during the year to ensure the continuation of the Lautenberg Amendment.

Each year since 1999, the Secretary of State has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom against Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities. Proponents of the Lautenberg Amendment argued that closing the door to Iranian religious minorities puts people seeking religious freedom in danger and sends the wrong message from the U.S. about our concern about the pervasive violations of religious freedom in Iran.

While the Iranian religious minority refugee program is small—averaging around 2,000 refugee admissions per year in recent years—the insistence by a bi-partisan group in Congress on its continued existence is encouraging and a clear legislative victory for refugees and religious freedom in 2011.

Photo by Sajjadi.