Jewish groups urge renewal of refugee fast-track


WASHINGTON (JTA) — A number of Jewish groups have joined two senators in an appeal to the U.S. House of Representatives to renew a provision that fast-tracks religious refugees.

"If the Lautenberg Amendment is not renewed by March 2011, hundreds of Iranian religious minorities will be stranded in Iran, unable to access the protection of the United States," says the letter signed by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and other Jewish and Christian groups and first reported last week by Politico.

Willam Daroff, the Washington director of the JFNA, confirmed Wednesday that the groups, joined by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who initiated the amendment in 1990, and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are still seeking a means to renew the amendment by March, when it expires.

Renewal has traditionally passed through an amendment to a funding bill; the new Republican majority in the House prefers to strip such bills of items not directly related to appropriation.

House Republicans have said the amendment should be reframed as a stand-alone bill. The procedure for such bills is slower than for appropriations bill, and it may not pass in time.

Lautenberg and Kirk, in a letter to House appropriators, said 2,800 refugees are stranded in Iran in the "processing pipeline."

"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," their Feb. 8 letter says.

The amendment was designed initially to facilitate Jewish exits from the Soviet Union and Christian exits from Vietnam. It broadens the definition of religious refugee for groups designated by the State Department as "of humanitarian concern." Its effect is to clear bureaucratic hurdles built in to the U.S. refugee system in order to fast-track groups in immediate danger.

Iran’s minorities, including Jews, Christians and Baha’i, have been designated as such since 1999, and the amendment was expanded in 2004 to include those groups.

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