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Honoring Frank Lautenberg's Legacy for Refugees | Commentary

Growing up poor as the son of Jewish immigrants in Paterson, New Jersey, Frank R. Lautenberg became a fighter not just for the people of New Jersey, but also for those living in danger many thousands of miles away.

For more than two decades, the senator championed an amendment bearing his name that established an escape route to freedom for individuals facing religious persecution.

In 1989, the Lautenberg Amendment began allowing Jews and other religious minorities from the former Soviet Union to resettle in the U.S. as refugees. Today, the Lautenberg Amendment mostly helps Jews, Christians, Baha’is and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, who were added as beneficiaries of the Lautenberg Amendment in 2004. It also remains available as a lifeline to Jews who, in the coming months, may need to leave Ukraine.

Lautenberg’s hallmark legislation has been extended each year for the past 25 years, and is currently scheduled to expire on Sept. 30, 2014. Unless it is again extended via appropriations legislation, or immigration legislation is enacted, it will expire only one year after Lautenberg’s death.

The end of the Lautenberg Amendment would mean the end of the safe and legal escape route for Christians, Jews and Baha’i seeking to flee religious persecution in Iran.

Under a program established by the State Department and the government of Austria, members of certain Iranian non-Muslim religious minority groups are eligible to receive visas to travel to Austria, where they can find safe haven while the U.S. government processes their applications for refugee resettlement.

This arrangement is a lifeline for Iranian religious minorities, as the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran. Applicants are given visas to travel to Austria only after the U.S. has verified that they are bona fide members of a designated religious minority group and after security checks have been completed.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 authorized the secretary of State to designate governments engaged in “severe, egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom” as “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs).” Each year since, Iran has been so designated for its treatment of Jews, Christians, Baha’is and others.

It is up to Congress to continue the senator’s lifelong work.

The immigration reform bill passed last June in the Senate (S 744) seeks to preserve Sen. Lautenberg’s legacy of protecting persecuted religious minorities. A provision in the bill included a section named in the senator’s honor that would renew the Lautenberg Amendment and improve protection for vulnerable refugee groups — particularly persecuted religious minorities.

This provision would save government resources by allowing the president, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, to designate certain refugee groups for resettlement for humanitarian reasons or when resettlement is in the national interest.

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