The Christians and other religious minorities, about 100 in total, had been left in limbo for over a year – and now face possible deportation back to Iran, where they would face persecution, arrest, and even torture, warned a congressional human rights commission.
"This is just another example of the United States turning its back on those fleeing from harm," the International Refugee Assistance Project said in a statement Wednesday.
The State Department would not confirm the number of refugees that have been denied, but a spokesperson told ABC News: "Changes to the vetting process introduced in 2016 resulted in a greater number of denials in the Vienna refugee program."
Iranians were barred from coming to the U.S. on President Donald Trump's original and subsequent travel bans, and refugees from Iran were on temporary refugee bans that ended in January. While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have advocated for special admission of more Christian refugees, Trump has also blasted Iran in particular as a threat.
The State Department spokesperson denied that the increased number of rejected refugees were because of those bans or Trump's rhetoric, but refused to explain why the refugees were denied or what changes to the vetting process now blocked their entry, citing privacy and security reasons.
The decision has also sparked outrage on Capitol Hill. The bipartisan co-chairs of Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission are demanding details of the decision from the Department of Homeland Security and urged the remaining refugees in Austria be admitted.
"Under no circumstance should those seeking refugee status be repatriated to Iran, where they could be subjected to arrest and torture," Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said in a joint statement. "We urge our allies to engage and offer safe harbor to these refugees."
The State Department says that they are trying to do just that, with the spokesperson saying, "We are working with the government of Austria and others on protection options, which could include resettlement or asylum elsewhere."
But it's another sign that the administration is working hard to limit the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. As ABC News has reported previously, the Trump administration set the lowest refugee admissions cap in the fall and has admitted refugees at a pace far below even that.
These particular Iranian refugees are supposed to be given entry to the U.S. because of their status as religious minorities. The U.S. and Austria began a partnership in 1983 to initially admit Iranian religious minorities to Austria for additional security vetting there – the same as any other refugee around the world – before finally being given a visa and moved to America.
The program had admitted over 53,000 Iranian religious minorities to date, including 800 since January 2017. Thousands more religious minorities are currently waiting in Iran for U.S. admission, according to Hultgren and McGovern.