Entry Debate Threatens Those Covered Under Lautenberg Amendment

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Any Jewish father would be proud of one daughter in medical school, but two? At the same time? Kein ayin hara.

Davoud Nezhad (not his real name), 65, has spent years jumping through the administrative hoops required to bring him from his native Iran to the United States, where his daughters are both medical residents and where his sister and her children all live.

Iran Map

It seemed as though he was getting close to the finish line, and that was a good thing, as one of his daughters is getting married in May.


“We applied for him to come over five years ago,” says Nezhad’s nephew, Rubin, a Philadelphia-area real estate professional, who fears using his last name will put his uncle in danger. “People lost his files, we had to refile again … ”

But Nezhad’s family persisted because they knew it could be done.

After all, Rubin, who was raised in Iran, has been here for 39 years, since he was granted asylum during the Iranian Revolution. His wife has been here for 27 years. His mother, brother, their other family members — they all came to the United States through legal channels, many of them with the help of HIAS PA’s Lori Alexander.

Now, however, Nezhad’s journey — like that of so many refugee-seekers — is up in the air since President Trump signed an executive order prohibiting refugees from entering the country for 120 days. As the courts fight to determine if the order is constitutional, Nezhad is in limbo.

“The guy, after all these years of raising a family, can’t go to his daughter’s wedding?” said Rubin, talking via cell phone about his uncle’s case.

Alexander, who’s been at HIAS PA since 1978, has no idea what to tell what Rubin — or any of her other clients, many of whom, like Nezhad, would normally be admitted to the United States under the Lautenberg Amendment.

That legislation was enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill to make it easier for certain persecuted religious minorities — like those from the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia — to resettle in the United States.

To qualify for admission under Lautenberg, a person must have a first-degree relative in the United States already. Jews must provide documentation to prove that they are 50 percent Jewish.

Alexander has a photo on her office bulletin board from HIAS PA’s 120th anniversary celebration, where the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, for whom the amendment was named, was the featured speaker.

“I’ve had this photo on my wall since 2002. There’s me standing with him,” she said proudly. “[The legislation has] been wonderful for our clients.”

In 2004, the amendment added Iran in order to facilitate the resettlement of non-Muslim religious minority groups from that country.

Despite the fact that Iran was consistently named a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act since 1999, many Iranians were unable to come to the U.S. because refugee adjudicators here did not always consider discrimination based on religion as persecution.

The Lautenberg Amendment’s addition of Iran opened a new world of possibility for that country’s dwindling Jewish population, which as of 2015 numbered less than 9,000. (There were 100,000 Jews in Iran as recently as 1979.)

In accordance with a partnership between the U.S. and Austria, Iranian Jews now file paperwork and do interviews, as much as possible, while in Iran. When that process ends and they have been given security clearance — which all takes at least two years, and often more — they are granted a transit visa to go to Vienna, the final step before resettlement in the United States.

This arrangement depends upon continued cooperation between Austria and the United States, as well as the Lautenberg Amendment being reauthorized every year. Until now, Congress has renewed the amendment every year, but it’s an open question whether they’ll do so this year. The reauthorization is already several months past due, which, Alexander noted, is not without precedent.

Last year, in fact, the government reauthorization of Lautenberg came in January, well past the October reauthorization deadline. Given that it’s now February, Alexander doesn’t know if the current delay owes to the wheels of bureaucracy turning slowly or to something more particular to this administration. The State Department, which is responsible for effecting the reauthorization, was not able to say, as of press time, what the amendment’s fate will be.

The problem with the delay is that, until the amendment is reauthorized each year, everything is on hold, so HIAS PA and its clients lost several months of progress last year. Lost months also mean that certain previously valid documents expire, so processes once considered done may have to be restarted all over again.

The so-called Muslim ban in the executive order only adds to the confusion.

“They do mention in the executive order there will be some exceptions for religious minorities,” Alexander said. “But we don’t know what that means. How do you qualify for that?“

No one seems to have a definitive answer.

In a 2014 backgrounder, HIAS national, which referred further questions to the State Department, wrote: “What will happen to refugees from Iran fleeing religious persecution if Congress does not renew the Lautenberg Amendment? … Without the Lautenberg Amendment, U.S. refugee processing in Austria of Iranian Christians, Jews, and Baha’i would be limited or even terminated. This will leave no safe way for these refugees to leave Iran to be processed as refugees for resettlement to the United States.”

Meanwhile, Alexander and her colleagues are fielding phone calls from Lautenberg-eligible families who want to get the process going, as well as from Jewish clients from the former Soviet Union who are frightened and confused. In addition to wanting to get more relatives here, they also want to speed their own citizenship process up. Some are afraid that their benefits are going to be taken away.

Rubin is afraid for his uncle, too; his mother, he said, worries a lot about her brother. Life is difficult for a Jew in Iran, Rubin said. “You’re always being watched.”

The United States, meanwhile, is a good country, he said.

“People think immigrants are bad for economy but immigrants bring funds, a lot of them, they are hard-working and contribute to economy,” he said. “Stereotyping is not a good way of being.”

There need to be immigration regulations, he said, “but how do you draw the line? I don’t know. That’s murky.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747

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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.

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