A federal judge in California has ordered the Trump administration to reconsider the asylum requests of nearly 90 Iranian refugees — overruling the blanket denial the government had issued to all of them. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security must disclose individual reasons for the denials, which allows the claimants to file an appeal.
The mass denial, issued Feb. 18, left the group marooned in Vienna with an uncertain future after they had abandoned homes and jobs to reunite with close relatives in the U.S.
The Iranians had traveled to Vienna from Tehran at the invitation of the U.S. government to complete their refugee applications as part of a unique refugee program with rules set by Congress in 2004. Most of them have been stranded for about a year.
"The court ordered the government to reissue the notices within 14 days," says Mariko Hirose, who is director of litigation for the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York and who argued for the plaintiffs in court.
The refugees then have 90 days to file an appeal — something that had been almost impossible after the February blanket denials because the government gave them no reason for the rejection, and hence no grounds to bring a case.
If any of the refugees appeal, their cases would be reopened. And if the government issues another denial, Hirose says, it has to "follow their own regulations" and provide a reason.
In her order, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman wrote that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security "retains an enormous amount of authority and discretion to adjudicate refugee applications, but they do not have the discretion to violate the law."
The government's specialized refugee program follows rules set by Congress under the Lautenberg Amendment, which was originally passed for Jews escaping the Soviet Union. In 2004, the program was expanded to include persecuted religious minorities in Iran — mainly Jews and Christians, but also Mandeans, Zoroastrians and Baha'is — and has worked quietly for more than a decade settling some 30,000 Iranians with relatives in the U.S.
Hirose says the government's blanket denial and subsequent legal battle is unprecedented. "There has been no case brought under Lautenberg," she says, "because the program has been so successful. It has nearly a 100 percent acceptance rate."
Although Freeman ruled in favor of these Iranian asylum-seekers, the future of the larger refugee program is in doubt. There have been no new candidates accepted since January 2017 despite more than 4,000 applicants currently waiting in Iran, according to refugee advocates.
"That is distressing," Hirose says. "But in this case, what is at stake are the 87 people who don't know what is going to happen in the future."