Putting Things into Perspective

Posted by Ilanit Sisso on Tue, Jun 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

After World War II, when much of the world had closed its doors to the Jewish people, Venezuela was one of the few countries that welcomed Jews from around the world with open arms. Growing up, I always heard the story of the Caribia and the Koenigstein, two German steamboats filled with Jewish refugees that had been allowed to enter into the country after they had been rejected from a number of other ports. The most notable part of this story is a small but significant detail. Once the boats arrived, there wasn't enough light at the port to moor the boats. Venezuelans in the area turned on the lights of their houses, cars, and trucks to welcome and help these complete strangers.

Unfortunately, since then, the political climate has changed in Venezuela. In 2000, my parents decided to move to the United States seeking security and a future for their children, as all four of my grandparents had done when they left Egypt, Spain, and Morocco in the 1940s and 1950s.

My personal background has instilled in me a deep awareness and appreciation for the opportunities that are available to me in the United States. As a Jewish American, it is clear to me that closing the door on persecuted religious minorities is not an option. While interning for HIAS in Washington DC, I have had the opportunity to learn about the Lautenberg Amendment. It helps individuals fleeing religious persecution who are seeking admission as refugees into the United States. Under the Lautenberg Amendment, applicants from designated countries where there has been widespread persecution and discrimination against certain groups are only required to prove that they are members of one of these groups and have a credible fear of persecution. It was originally established to protect people from the Former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia, but today it also serves to facilitate the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha'is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran.

The Lautenberg Amendment has been extended each year since it was first enacted in 1990, but in 2011 it was only extended until June 1, 2011. This has closed the door to freedom for many religious minorities and raises pressing concerns. The Amendment is crucial to helping individuals residing in countries like Iran where universal rights that we often take for granted such as access to education and freedom of religion are not available to everyone. HIAS is currently working with other organizations to urge representatives of Congress to extend the Lautenberg Amendment.

The United States should “turn on the lights” for refugees fleeing religious persecution as the Venezuelan people did for Jewish refugees after World War II. The Lautenberg Amendment is an important piece of legislation that does just this, and it must be renewed by Congress.

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