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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.

The section of S 744 named for Sen. Lautenberg would also repeal barriers to asylum that have closed the door to many individuals who should be eligible for asylum in the U.S. The bill includes a repeal of the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications, which since 1996 has prevented many individuals with legitimate claims of persecution from being granted asylum, and would eliminate barriers to refugees seeking to join family members already living legally in the U.S. The section contains provisions that would make the asylum process more efficient, saving scarce resources to approve or deny cases without unnecessary delays

The late Sen. Lautenberg earned the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been able to start new lives in safety and freedom because of the his unwavering commitment to religious freedom and refugee protection. Congress must extend the Lautenberg Amendment and enact the refugee and asylum provisions in S 744 to uphold this lifesaving work.

Melanie Nezer is vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, a global Jewish organization that protects refugees.

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