Numerous Jewish organizations including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society joined Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in calling for the U.S. House of Representatives to renew a provision that fast-tracks asylum for religious refugees including Jews, Christians, and members of the Baha’i faith. HIAS also issued a statement decrying proposed cuts to an account the organization says provides vital help to refugees.
Inside the BeltwayIn a Feb. 8 letter, the senators argued that members of Congress tasked with appropriations should renew the Lautenberg Amendment. Set to expire March 20, the amendment expands the definition of religious refugee and fast-tracks groups in immediate danger. Initiated by Lautenberg in 1990, it was originally designed to expedite the immigration of Soviet Jews and Vietnamese Christians to the United States.
The amendment clears bureaucratic hurdles for Jews, Christians, and Baha’is seeking to escape the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Without this safe means of exit, Iranian religious minorities are often forced to cross the border to eastern Turkey, where conditions for asylum-seekers are extremely unsafe,” the letter states.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8) also weighed in on support of extending the Lautenberg Amendment.
“I believe this nation should be responsive to those who struggle to escape persecution due to their faith,” he told this newspaper. “I fully support Sen. Lautenberg’s efforts on behalf of [religious] minority applicants from Iran.”
Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy at HIAS, told this newspaper that the delay that would result from some House Republicans’ call for the Lautenberg Amendment to be reframed as a stand-alone bill would result in at least 100 refugees seeking to emigrate from the Islamic Republic being placed in immediate danger.
“If [the] Lautenberg [Amendment] isn’t extended, the mechanism is not in place to process them through Vienna, so the people who need to flee [will be] forced to take dangerous routes through Turkey,” Nezer said. “These refugees include Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and others who historically have had great difficulty in Iran.”
Nezer also characterized cuts proposed to the Migration and Refugee Assistance account, which provides federal funding for refugees and internally displaced persons, as “drastic.” At the end of last week, the House approved cuts to the program, slashing its budget by 45 percent. Should the Senate approve these cuts, the State Department would have no additional funding to resettle refugees for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, according to HIAS.
“We’re talking about people who have been persecuted in their countries and forced to flee, who have left their homes, jobs, and families, and have literally nothing,” Nezer said. “Despite the fact that times are tough here, it is crucial that we help them.”
On the Israel front, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) issued a statement commending the Obama administration for using its veto to block last week’s U.N. resolution denouncing Israel’s settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace. He also spoke more generally about the U.N.’s treatment of Israel regarding settlements.
“The future boundaries of any two-state solution,” Rothman said in a statement, “must only be determined through direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians and not at the U.N.”
In an interview, Rothman shared his view that Israeli settlements are not the true obstacle to resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“In 1967, Israel was surrounded by armies about to attack who had pledged to wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” Rothman said. “Israel responded heroically and successfully in defending herself, and ever since then has been urging the Palestinians to come to an agreement…. The Palestinians’ refusal to take yes for an answer to the question of whether there should be an independent, contiguous Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel is the real problem, not settlements or any other issue.”