When U.S. President Donald Trump signed his executive order halting refugee admissions last month citing national security, he made it a point to say that religious minorities, especially Christians, would be given priority.
But some Christian refugees have been unable to enter the U.S. in the aftermath of the presidential order, even though the travel ban has been suspended for now by federal courts, reported KPCC Southern California Public Radio.
One Armenian family bound for Los Angeles is among the refugees held up in Iran.
George Haratoonian, a business owner who lives in Glendale, California, and arrived himself as a refugee nearly three decades ago, was expecting his brother’s family to fly into Los Angeles on Feb. 4. They were planning to live with him until they got settled.
But just as the president’s order took effect in late January, the family received disappointing news: their visas to Austria, the first leg of their journey, had been canceled. Haratoonian was with them in Tehran when they got the news.
The Haratoonians are Armenian Christians, a religious minority in Iran. The family was traveling to the U.S. through what is known as the Lautenberg program, which benefits religious minorities. The program was originally enacted in 1990 to assist refugees from the former Soviet Union. Today, the program mostly benefits Christian, Jewish, Baha’i and other religious minority refugees from Iran.
Haratoonian said his family has lost much more than visas. They had quit their jobs, left school, moved out of their home and sold all their belongings.
“Now, they’ve lost everything. And now they are living like homeless. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
The family is being resettled by the International Rescue Committee, one of a handful of government-authorized refugee resettlement agencies.
Martin Zogg, director of the agency’s Los Angeles office, said the organization has 155 refugees who are held up in Iran with canceled visas.
He said those refugees who had already made it to Austria when the executive order took effect were allowed to travel on to the U.S. once a federal district court temporarily stayed the ban. But those in Iran have no way out without Austrian transit visas.
An Austrian official told the KPCC by email that his government was “currently in contact with the U.S. authorities to determine the way to proceed.”