Before the holidays, the President signed a spending bill for 2012 that includes the “Lautenberg Amendment” which is a provision that gives an extension for refugees seeking religious freedom. This provision was originally enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, and it established a presumption of eligibility for refugee status for certain categories of people from Southeast Asia, as well as religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) seeking to resettle as refugees in the United States. Today the Lautenberg Amendment primarily facilitates the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, while it continues to cover religious minorities from the FSU.
The Lautenberg Amendment has been extended on appropriations legislation every year since its enactment but last year it was only extended for part of the year before it expired on June 1, 2011. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and has jurisdiction over refugee-related legislation, was the main obstacle to the renewal of the amendment. He alleged that the refugee program has not received sufficient Congressional oversight despite the fact that each year he presides over consultation with the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services on the U.S. Refugee Program. Through strong bi-partisan support demonstrated by letters signed by 21 senators and 108 House members to House and Senate leadership urging that the amendment be extended, the provision was finally included in the 2012 spending bill that Congress passed. Besides Congress members, the inclusion of the amendment was also urged by HIAS, the Jewish Federations of North America, and other national and local Jewish groups, along with the National Association of Evangelicals and World Relief and partners in the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. At a time when Congress is deadlocked on immigration issues and legislative victories are few and far between, it is reassuring to know that the powers inherent in the collective persuasion of our nation’s leaders is still a powerful weapon to sway these leaders in matters that benefit the people. Despite all of the political intransigence we have grown accustomed to seeing in matters related to immigration, we are proud to see that our nation has once again proven to be a beacon of hope for those seeking it as a safe haven.