Iranian refugees caught in limbo after expected funding from L.A. federation falls through

Acknowleding a post-Oct. 7 priority shift, Jewish Federation of Los Angeles says it is still committed to bringing over the 375 refugees, but activists involved in the case say the window to do so may be closing

Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Long Beach and West Orange County (JFCS) was set to bring 375 Jewish and Bahá?í refugees from Iran to start new lives with family in Los Angeles this year, at a cost of roughly $1,000 per person.

But then, in April, the funding suddenly fell through, leaving the refugees, who have been approved for refugee status and waiting to enter the United States since 2016, stuck in limbo.

The sudden shortfall was the result of a decision by the Jewish Federation Los Angeles, which had initially agreed to fund the initiative, to pull out in light of shifting priorities after the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel. The organization maintains that it is still committed to bringing over the 375 refugees, but as time passes that may be more difficult.

This development comes amid general concern among activists that Jewish groups’ support for Iranian opposition to the regime is waning in light of the war in Israel and rising global antisemitism.

“I understand that we’re worried about Israel and antisemitism on campus, but we have a very limited opportunity, maybe incredibly limited opportunity, to get some Jews out of Iran. I think we should take it,” Trip Oldfield, CEO of JFCS, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

According to estimates, 9,000 to 20,000 Jews remain in Iran out of a population that once numbered over 100,000 before the 1979 Islamic revolution, which prompted a mass exodus, mostly to the United States and Israel. The Lautenberg Amendment, sometimes referred to as the Lautenberg Program, which offers refuge in the United States to Iranian minorities including Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Sabaean-Mandaeans and Zoroastrians, processing them through Vienna, expires every year and must be reauthorized each September.

First passed in 1990, the amendment was previously halted by the Trump administration in 2017, blocking the 375 refugees from their journey, before being reapproved in 2023. Every year, the window to bring refugees to America can be shut, including if there is a change in administrations.

“There’s a sense of urgency here, maybe that isn’t fully understood,” Oldfied said.

The plan was for JFCS to handle finance and administration of the cases that Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFSLA) would provide case management for due to their proximity to the community in which the refugees would settle. Half of the refugees are Bahá?í — a small, relatively modern religion whose followers are persecuted in Iran — and half are Jewish. 

“Support for such work should be an easy case to make,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, who organizes the services and is invested in procuring funding so the refugees can come to America, told eJP. “The Iranian-American Jewish community represents an incredible success story, consisting of immigrants and former refugees who now have the capacity to welcome members of their own community fleeing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Although no written contracts were signed, Jewish Federation of Los Angeles (JFedLA) was expected to fund the program and officials from JFedLA referring to the participating organizations as a “partnership,” according to multiple sources involved in the initiative. Planning meetings were held. Government approval was procured. Last September, HIAS, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and JFedLA organized an event, pushing community members to get their applications in for family members.

“Everybody’s message was positive, and everybody’s message was, ‘We’ve been here and we will be here to help,’” recalled Elliott Benjamin, IAJF’s vice president.

In early April, JFCS, HIAS and JFSLA were informed that JFedLA would no longer be providing funding. This initiative would have cost them $350,000 over four years, with the goal of serving 75 refugees per year, according to Oldfield.

“My first reaction was, ‘Well, that would have been nice to know ahead of time,” Oldfield said. “We would have been able to try to work around that, but now we’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Once funding fell through, JFSLA’s involvement in the program did as well.

“Jewish Family Service LA provided resettlement services to Iranian refugees until 2017,” a spokesperson for JFSLA said in a statement to eJP, referencing the work they did through the Lautenberg Amendment prior to the Trump administration shutting it down. “When funding became unavailable, this specific program closed down. JFSLA continues to serve refugees, immigrants and other vulnerable populations in Los Angeles through a number of programs, helping to ensure clients can live with dignity and exercise self-determination.”

JFSLA would not comment about the specifics of this group of 375 refugees.

Becky Sobelman-Stern, executive vice president and chief program officer of JFedLA, who noted that her daughter-in-law is Persian, told eJP during a phone call on April 21 that JFedLA’s plans simply changed after Oct. 7, but that the 375 Iranian refugees are still “our top, top priority.”

Plans shifted, she said, because of “new realities in the world.” Sobelman-Stern explained that the JFedLA “determined post- Oct. 7, that the best, best most efficient entity, organization, NGO, nonprofit would be the IRC [International Rescue Committee],” who would “deal with these cases, and if there are additional needs, that’s where the Jewish Federation is going to come in. But we don’t know what those additional needs are.”

IRC is a federally approved resettlement agency based in Glendale, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb that does not have a large Persian Jewish community. Its Lautenberg Amendment-related work has predominantly been with Armenian Christian Iranian refugees who live closer to their headquarters. 

JFedLA chose to work with IRC, Sobelman-Stern said, because they have “Farsi-speaking social workers on their staff that can provide these services, top-notch quality, and quickly. They already have the infrastructure.”

JFedLA is “obligated” to help, she said. “We’re working with Jewish Family Services and the IRC, so that when those folks come to Los Angeles, they get all the services they need.”

When contacted by eJP, Martin Zogg, executive director of IRC Los Angeles, said that JFedLA hasn’t contacted them about working together.

“I last spoke with someone at the federation maybe a year and a half ago regarding the Lautenberg Program, but I haven’t spoken with anyone there since.” Zogg said, adding that he would only take on the cases if funding was provided. “We’re happy to take transfers, but we’ve received neither any cases nor any funding.”

The funding requirements are not particularly high. The government “basically pays about 50 cents on the dollar of what it actually takes to resettle refugees,” Oldfield said. Resettlement agencies get a one-time grant of roughly $2,200 per client from the government, half of which goes towards managing the cases and half which goes to clients to build their new lives. But there are always unexpected expenses related to food and housing, he said. 

The organization is responsible for the refugees for 90 days, and sometimes clients need a first month’s deposit for an apartment or a room in a hotel. “The federation of L.A. [was] talking about raising $1 million, but we don’t really need that much. What it comes down to is $1,000 per person. It’s not that much,” Oldfield said. (Last year, JFedLA raised $35 million in the wake of Oct. 7.)

Since the program relaunched last year, JFCS relocated six refugees. (JFSLA also did case management for eight others without the JFedLA funding before not taking on any more clients). Managing the cases was taxing on JFCS’s 20-person staff, none of whom speak Farsi. The six staff members who work with refugees are already juggling 300 clients through other programs.

“It’s tough, so we decided to shut down or stop the flow until we can figure out a plan that’s fair for everybody,” Oldfield said. “We’re stuck in a position where we never thought we would have the responsibility of [providing] safety for Iranian Jews, and now it’s our duty as Jews.”

JFCS’s most urgent need is funding for a part-time staff member who speaks Farsi now that JFSLA is no longer providing case management. Then the group needs additional funds for helping the refugees launch into their new lives, Oldfield said. HIAS said it is trying to cobble together whatever funding they can to get the program reopened.

While it is possible to transfer cases between agencies prior to a refugee arriving in the United States, it’s difficult and frowned upon by the government. Deciding which agencies work with cases is not a move that is dictated by funders, and would fall on HIAS to reorganize, not JFedLA.  

Calls from frantic families are surging to both the JCFS and to the IAJF, especially as Iran clashes directly and indirectly with Israel. Persian Jews in Iran live in fear, often condemning Israel so they won’t be targeted by the Iranian government. (An Iranian Jewish man is now facing execution for killing a Muslim man, allegedly in self-defense.) “It is so outrageous that we would see the federation behave this way when they’re claiming to care so much about antisemitism and Israel when these are literally the Jews who are fleeing for their lives because of anti-Zionism,” a source involved with the planning for the refugees who asked to remain anonymous told eJP.

But IAJF’s Benjamin said he has faith in the JFedLA, which currently funds an IAJF program unrelated to the Lautenberg Amendment and has helped make the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish community “one of the most successful immigrant communities in the United States.” He referred to JFedLA and HIAS as the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish communities’ “big brothers and sisters,” whose support over the decades has been invaluable.

“Every meeting that I attended [at the Jewish federation],” he said, “I would get asked the question [by the JFedLA], ‘What more can we do for the Iranian community, for the Iranian Jewish community… Their support was invaluable.”

When asked this week to reconcile her claim that JFedLA was working with IRC with IRC saying that it had received no funding and had no Lautenberg Amendment-related ties to JFedLA, Sobelman-Stern acknowledged that her organization did not have a financial relationship with IRC. 

“There would be no reason for us to give money to the IRC because they’re getting money from the government,” she said. Instead, Sobelman-Stern said, JFedLA supports refugees through the Ezra Network, a JFSLA case management initiative that is open to the Jewish community, but would exclude the Bahá?í refugees. “We take care of the refugees once they’ve gone through the resettlement process if they need emergency grants,” she said.

The Ezra Network doesn’t offer the funding that would bring the refugees in, which is what is halting the program, the anonymous source involved in the initiative said. It also is only available to half the refugees — the Jewish ones — that they claim to want to help. “They’re basically saying they will help when there is the least help needed… after someone else resettles them, and that’s after years of telling [the other agencies] that they were gonna help with the resettlement.”

Sobelman-Stern stressed the organization’s commitment to the cause: “There are 375 folks in the queue. We are going to continue this work until that work is completed.”

Ed. note: A previous version of this piece stated that since the program relaunched last year, JFCS alone relocated 14 refugees. In fact, the relocation was a joint effort between JFCS and JFSLA, with the agencies splitting the cases.