Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Iranians have always lived in limbo in the United States. Now it’s chaos.

The ‘travel ban’ implemented by this administration is more of the same, and yet even worse.

August 29, 2018 at 6:00 AM

In a rally called "Peace for Iran," thousands march in Washington, D.C. in protest of the administration's travel ban on Feb. 04, 2017. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It was 1993, and my cousin Minoo was stuck in Paris. She was trying to secure a tourist visa to visit our ailing uncle and other extended family she had never met in the United States — all immigrants who came from Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. She’d already been refused a visa in Dubai but was advised to try her luck at an embassy in a Western country such as France or England. She saved for months to buy a ticket to Paris. She wasn’t trying to immigrate; she just wanted to visit her family.

But the United States was not welcoming Iranians in great numbers; Iranians were still paying for the 1980 hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held in Iran for 444 days. The embassy representatives in Paris gave no reason for rejecting her request. I stood with her and made a plea on our uncle’s behalf, declaring myself an American-born U.S. citizen. The woman at the counter, unmoved by my passport, told us to move along.

Minoo has never been able to come to the United States. She has missed countless definitive moments in the lives of our family — births, marriages, deaths. It has never been easy for Iranians who scattered around the globe after the revolution. Nearly 3 million Iranians have immigrated to the United States alone since 1979, and countless political escalations between this country and Iran have left them in physical, emotional and legal limbo. The “travel ban” implemented by this administration is yet more of the same, and even worse; at its core, the executive order is designed to divide and separate individuals, families and nations, and it continues the long arc of animosity and stereotyping that has little to do with the everyday lives of Iranians and Iranian Americans. It has turned our lives upside down, divided families and nearly extinguished hope for a better relationship between the two countries.

After the hostage crisis came Sept. 11, 2001, after which George W. Bush declared Iran part of the "axis of evil.” No one involved in the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, or any other terrorist activities on U.S. soil, was Iranian; despite this, Iranians have been subsumed into increasingly anti-Muslim, anti-Middle Eastern sentiments after those events. While Iranians had been able to secure some student and tourist visas, they’ve been subjected to higher levels of scrutiny and suspicion over the past decade. During the Obama administration, new rules prohibited visa-free travel for citizens of four countries if they held dual citizenship of any of them — it didn’t matter that many of these people had never been to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan.

After the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, many of us hoped that our Iranian relatives might experience some economic relief as sanctions were lifted, that extended family would visit us for the first time and that people like me would be able to travel freely to Iran without worry. The deal was our best hope for a real change between the two countries, whose tense relationship has defined the borders of our lives.

After Trump’s threats to tank the Iran deal, people began to fear the worst. But no one imagined the travel ban, which has suspended both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to people from seven countries (five of them Muslim-majority nations). With a population of 80 million, Iran is the largest country affected. Under the travel ban, individuals can be granted a waiver (on the discretion of consulate officers) but must still seek a visa. Student visas will be subject to increased vetting.

Long after the utter chaos following its implementation, the ban continues to turn the lives of Iranians and Iranian Americans upside down. Sara N., a former student of mine who works at a Bay Area agency providing services to newly arrived Iranian immigrants and who asked that her full name not be used because of her own status as an asylum seeker, describes debilitating confusion. Some attorneys think people should still apply for the same diverse visas that have always been sought; others understand this ban as effectively ending family petitions — that the I-130 form can no longer be filed. She said others encourage Iranian Americans and immigrants to move to other countries where they will be more welcome. She suspects that her organization will not have clients in a year or two, simply because there will be no new Iranian immigrants to work with.

“Nobody is coming to the U.S. anymore,” she said. “It’s sad for many of us who saw this country as a place of refuge and opportunity, a place where we could really contribute.” Iranian Americans are highly educated and stand out across many fields and professions, including the late famed mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani and tech star Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay; the per capita income of Iranian Americans is 50 percent higher than that of the average American, according to research from the Iranian Studies Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The executive order is personal for Sara, whose elderly parents live in Iran.

“Every morning that I open my eyes to check my phone, I’m afraid to open my dad’s and my mom’s messages, as I’m not sure how to react if anything bad happens to them,” she said with tears in her eyes. Sara came to the United States as a student, and she knows she cannot return to Iran because of her work as a journalist there. She said the ban has left her anxious, depressed and worried about her pending asylum case. “This administration is making the process as slow as possible,” she says. “I have known that I could not leave the U.S. since the very first day I filed my case. But how on earth could I guess that my parents would be banned from coming here? It’s terrible. I cannot leave this country, and they cannot get a tourist visa.”

Leila Vakili, a bright-eyed young woman with whom I struck up a conversation at a neighborhood gym after I spotted her carrying a copy of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” in Persian, told me she came to the United States through a green-card lottery to continue her studies and make a better life for herself. She last saw her mother two years ago when she returned to Iran for a summer visit, and now wonders when she’ll be able to see her again. Two months ago, her mother’s visa application at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey was rejected, and Vakili began to question the decision to leave both her family and her country behind. “When you immigrate as an adult from your country to make your future in another place, you decide to go forward, and it is difficult to look back,” she said. “I feel I don’t have a home in either place now. I live in the air of hesitancy.” Vakili, who is engaged to an American man, wonders whether she’ll have to walk down the aisle alone.

My friend Elica Vafaie, an Iranian American attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, works with a population that is scrambling to respond to the travel ban. “This ban doesn’t just have terrible consequences for those with medical conditions — people here who might be sick and need their family members to come,” Vafaie said. (We had both heard about an Iranian undergraduate student at the University of California at Davis recently diagnosed with cancer whose parents cannot be by her side through her chemo treatments.) “It’s all the ways this order makes people feel isolated and punished for simply being from a particular country.” The order, she said, is preventing her clients from being with their families during critical times in their lives, at weddings and births and even deaths of loved ones.

One of the many clients Vafaie works with is an Iranian American woman whose fiance was born in Iran but attended college in the United States. He is now unable to secure a visa or a waiver to return to the United States after his most recent trip back to Iran. According to Vafaie, the couple have already been separated for two years; the travel ban makes their prospects of reuniting even more dim. “How does one plan for a life, how do you know what kind of job to take, where to live, when you have this kind of uncertainty hanging over you?” Vafaie said. Although the newest iteration of the ban allows for some exceptions for those with exceptional circumstances or talents, Vafaie explained that these waivers create a false sense of possibility. “They’re risky because there is a less than 2 percent chance that a waiver will be granted for anyone,” Vafaie said. “People save their money, travel to a whole other country, get called in for the interview and will likely be rejected on the spot. It’s devastating for parents, grandparents and children. But for spouses, this kind of separation is unthinkable when they’ve dreamed of building a life together.”

Vakili describes another level of loss, which I also feel.

“It is already hard for me to encounter the level of ignorance and hostility that many in this country have toward Iran,” she said. “When I think about the effects of this ban, I feel sad for Americans, too. They won’t see people. It’s all the ways that this ban creates a belief about people from certain places, like my country. It closes them off to the world and to understanding who we are and all the good things about Iranians that they don’t even know.”

We have all long lived in the air of hesitancy. Speaking to these women about their experiences after the Supreme Court upheld the travel ban takes me back to that embassy in Paris three decades ago, and the sense that Minoo and I were casualties of political enmity. Our family, and the family of so many Iranian Americans, have been divided by history. But by now, we crave, and we deserve, the opportunity to shape a different narrative about people and nations with whom we have far more in common than we even realize.


Persis Karim is the inaugural Neda Nobari Chair of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. She is a second-generation Iranian American.

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