RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Trump administration is denying asylum to a hundred Christians and other religious minorities from Iran. The refugees have been stranded in Austria for more than a year. Now human rights advocates say they may be deported back to Iran. NPR's Deborah Amos spoke with one family caught in the middle.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We start this story in Los Gatos, Calif., where the U.S. rejection of an Iranian refugee in Austria is a family tragedy here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Of course I get mad, and I start crying, and then my body starts shaking.
AMOS: We speak via Skype. I can't use her name. She fears for the safety of her sister, now stranded in Vienna, in danger of being deported back to Iran. The threat looms now that the U.S. has denied asylum, closing the path to join her family in California. It's a devastating blow.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I need my sister. I don't see her 15 year. I don't see her when she get married. I don't see her when the baby's born. I want her.
AMOS: She's with Mindy Berkowitz, head of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley. This nonprofit has resettled many Iranian refugees over the decades and is fielding calls from frantic relatives.
MINDY BERKOWITZ: When you have somebody who you love and you don't know what's going to happen to them, it's so hard.
AMOS: Especially hard because this particular refugee program worked quietly for over a decade, resettling more than 30,000 Iranians in the U.S. They applied to resettle under guidelines set by Congress. It's a law known as the Lautenberg Amendment. Originally for Jews from the Soviet Union, Congress expanded the program for persecuted religious minorities from Iran - mostly Christians and Jews, but also Mandaeans, Zoroastrians and Baha'is. The State Department selects applicants who go to Vienna for final security checks. It usually takes weeks to a few months. The program had an almost 100 percent approval rating but has ground to a halt under the Trump administration, says Berkowitz.
BERKOWITZ: We haven't seen this circumstance before, so I can't tell you what their future is. They can't go back to Iran, and I don't know how they can stay in Vienna.
AMOS: Advocates say more than a hundred are stuck in Vienna. The future of the program is at stake, too, says Betsy Fisher, program director for the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York. No new applicants have gone to Austria since January 2017.
BETSY FISHER: This is another example of the Trump administration de facto dismantling a program that was mandated by Congress.
AMOS: Some in Congress are pushing back. A Democrat, Jim McGovern from Massachusetts, and Republican Randy Hultgren of Illinois sent a protest letter accusing the Trump administration of, quote, "thwarting the purpose of the law." Is there a security risk, they ask, for some of these Christian applicants who are elderly and disabled? But there are few answers. The State Department would not comment on the specifics in an email exchange with NPR. A spokeswoman said, quote, "changes to the program resulted in a greater number of denials," and greater uncertainty for a special program that helped religious minorities like writer Roya Hakakian.
ROYA HAKAKIAN: I came with nothing from a hostile country, and here I am, somebody who went to college, published books, made a life.
AMOS: It's made her a patriotic American, she says, a defender of what she sees as American core values.
HAKAKIAN: And I think if the American light goes out, there is very little hope for everyone else under persecution in other parts of the world.
AMOS: She's closely tracking the Iranians stranded in Austria. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.