THE BLOG
06/07/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Senator Lautenberg: An Appreciation of His Lifesaving Work With Refugees

In 1989, I traveled from New Jersey to Rome, the city in Europe where the United States government processed those fleeing the Soviet Union as refugees, a status that would allow them to come to the U.S., where they would make new lives in freedom. Hired by HIAS as a caseworker, I was sent to help the thousands of Soviet Jews in Italy who unpredictably had been denied refugee status by the U.S. Embassy.

These people were accustomed to refusal. All were either "refuseniks," who had faced years of the Soviet government refusing to allow them to exercise their right to emigrate, or people who had delayed their applications to emigrate due to complete certainty that their applications would be denied, and they would be viewed by their workplace or school as traitors.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened immigration restrictions, Soviet Jews started leaving by the thousands. Most hoped to go to a country like the U.S. or Israel, to join family members they had not seen since the Kremlin's short-lived liberalization of Jewish emigration in 1979.

Then, suddenly, in 1989, the U.S. stopped approving nearly all Soviet Jews as refugees, denying one in five in Rome. A 20 percent denial rate may not sound terrible but, with 17,000 Soviet Jewish applicants already in Italy, this change meant that thousands found themselves in limbo with no legal status. Moreover, we at HIAS could not figure out which cases were likely to be approved or denied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- a dartboard seemed a more reliable predictor of refugee approvals and denials than our own analyses.

The outcomes for Soviet Jews who applied directly to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were even worse, with a 54 percent rejection rate.

While the Twitter era was decades away, a September 25, 1989 Newsweek headline said it best in 65 characters: "A Troublesome Exodus: George Bush says 'nyet so fast' to Soviet Jews."

HIAS' response was to hire me, a 21-year-old Jersey boy with a mere year of paralegal experience, halting Russian, and a Soviet studies degree, to work with a team of four professionals and as many volunteers to wage appeals for the thousands of denials. The problem was that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in those days was even less transparent than the Soviet Exit Visa Authority "OVIR." No reason whatsoever was given for denials of refugee status. As the Bruce Springsteen song from that decade put it, we at HIAS in Rome were all "dancing in the dark."

A 65-year-old Jersey boy had a much better idea of how to respond to the problem. Frank Lautenberg, working with Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-CT), came up with the Lautenberg Amendment, which restored the earlier standard of refugee adjudication for Soviet Jews, Evangelical Christians, and certain other minorities. This passed as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill of 1990, solving the problem within only a few months. Nearly all denied cases were reopened and approved by the Lautenberg Amendment.

Ten years ago, in Vienna, it was déjà vu all over again: the U.S. Embassy suddenly started denying nearly one-third of refugee applications of Jews from Iran, and nearly half of all applications from Iranian Christians. Senator Lautenberg was no longer in the Senate, so HIAS and other advocates worked with Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), now also of blessed memory, to take up the mantle. Senator Specter successfully fought in Congress to expand the Amendment to protect Iranian religious minorities as well. Once again, problem solved thanks to Senator Lautenberg's Amendment.

When Senator Lautenberg returned to the Senate after his brief retirement in 2003, he did not waste time reclaiming ownership of the Lautenberg Amendment and has championed it ever since. This has been necessary, as the Amendment sunsets each September 30 and, though the Amendment operates within the numerical refugee targets annually set by the President in consultation with Congress, immigration restrictionists in Congress have consistently tried to defeat it when it comes up for renewal. Senator Lautenberg's leadership has been essential, year after year, to its survival.

This past year, Senator Lautenberg's failing health did not prevent him from working to further improve and expand the Amendment's protection for refugees. Section 3403 of S. 744 -- the comprehensive Immigration Reform bill proposed by the "Gang of 8," now under consideration by the Senate -- would essentially create a permanent extension of the Amendment and allow the President to designate and undesignate vulnerable refugee groups, as protection is needed.

You do not need to be a refugee to benefit from the Lautenberg Amendment. We all have. The refugees whom Senator Lautenberg brought to the U.S. are among the most successful immigrants in our nation's history. They are doctors, engineers, business owners, artists, musicians, and writers.

Speaking personally, when my wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2003, our insurance company was fighting with oncologists regarding their billing practices, and no one would take our insurance. The one local oncologist who did was Dr. Gregory Braslavksy of Long Branch, New Jersey. Dr. Braslavsky immigrated to the U.S. under the Lautenberg Amendment. He saved her life, and my wife, our two children, and I are eternally grateful to him -- and to Senator Lautenberg -- for this act of compassion.

Thank you Senator Lautenberg. We will miss you.

In 1999, HIAS spoke with Senator Lautenberg about his legacy legislation. Below is an excerpt of this interview.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?