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Letter to Senate Appropriations Committee

U.S. Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) this week led a bipartisan effort in the Senate to extend a recently expired program that protects victims of religious persecution, including Iranian religious minorities. With bipartisan support from 19 Senators, Lautenberg and Kirk sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee urging that the "Lautenberg Amendment" be extended as the Committee prepares to consider legislation to fund the State Department and foreign operations.

"The Lautenberg Amendment began as a provision of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for FY 1990, when thousands of Soviet Christians and Jews facing religious persecution were denied refugee status by the U.S. The Lautenberg Amendment solved this problem by giving clear guidance to immigration officers, enabling persecuted individuals to come live in safety in the United States. In 2003, when the same problem occurred with Jews, Baha'i and Christians in Iran, Congress expanded the protection of the Lautenberg Amendment to Iranian religious minorities. We urge you to work to renew the Lautenberg Amendment and maintain this critical lifeline," the Senators wrote.

The Lautenberg Amendment, originally enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, established a presumption of eligibility for refugee status for certain categories of people from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and Southeast Asia. Today, the Lautenberg Amendment also facilitates the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha'is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, which was added to the Lautenberg Amendment in 2003. It has been extended in appropriations legislation each year; however, this year it expired on June 1, 2011.

Without the Lautenberg Amendment, U.S. refugee processing of Iranian Christians, Jews, and Baha'i would be limited or even terminated. Closing the door to Iranian religious minorities puts people seeking religious freedom in danger and sends the wrong message about the pervasive violations of religious freedom in Iran.

The letter was also signed by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Scott P. Brown (R-MA), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY), Dean Heller (R-NV), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), John Boozman (R-AR), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

A copy of the letter can be found here and the text is copied below:

Dear Chairmen Inouye and Leahy, Vice Chairman Cochran, and Ranking Member Graham:

We urge you to include in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill the "Lautenberg Amendment," a critical lifeline for individuals fleeing religious persecution. This amendment has been included in the State, Foreign Operations Appropriations bill every year since FY 1990, but expired on June 1, 2011.

The Lautenberg Amendment began as a provision of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for FY 1990, when thousands of Soviet Christians and Jews facing religious persecution were denied refugee status by the U.S. The Lautenberg Amendment solved this problem by giving clear guidance to immigration officers, enabling persecuted individuals to come live in safety in the United States. In 2003, when the same problem occurred with Jews, Baha'i and Christians in Iran, Congress expanded the protection of the Lautenberg Amendment to Iranian religious minorities.

With President Ahmadinejad in power in Iran, the Lautenberg Amendment is needed more than ever. Every year since the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the President has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations. The 2011 Annual Report of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states, "The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused."

Without the Lautenberg Amendment providing a safe means of exit, Iranian religious minorities will be forced to cross the border to Turkey or Pakistan, where conditions for asylum seekers (particularly non-Muslims) are extremely unsafe, and access to resettlement uncertain.

We urge you to work to renew the Lautenberg Amendment and maintain this critical lifeline. Thank you for considering this request.


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