Views My Own

How Trump's Travel Ban Hurts Iranian Americans Like Me

Students, human rights workers, and ordinary people with family in Iran have been victimized by a capricious and harsh policy.
February 8, 2017, 5:00am
Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It's barely been two weeks since Donald Trump issued his far-reaching ban on immigration and travel for individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, but it feels like we've entered a whole new epoch. Even if the courts strike down the order, partly or completely, it will stand as a declaration that open season on Muslims and Middle Eastern people now exists. Singling out the citizens of a few countries as "bad people," as Trump has done in a tweet, condones racism and bigotry against them and leaves them feeling vulnerable. And, as someone with Iranian heritage, I wish I could say this were the first time we have encountered this kind of hostility and xenophobia.

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As a high school senior in California, I lived through the events of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. For many Americans of Iranian heritage—and especially those who, unlike me, immigrated in the early days of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War—those events were psychologically scarring and left them feeling between worlds. While I was too young to understand the politics of the fissure between Iran and the US and the reasons for the hostage crisis, I saw clearly how easily the media and Americans' global ignorance could result in vindictive rhetoric and for some even calling for the "nuking of Iran."

But by the 2000s, most Iranians had begun to feel at home in the US, even though the governments of the US and Iran remained hostile to each other. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, though, a new source of anxiety and ill ease emerged among Iranian Americans. Never mind that no Iranians were part of those attacks, George W. Bush's declaration of Iran as being part of the "Axis of Evil" set the stage for a new era of hostility. Republican presidential candidate John McCain joked about bombing Iran in 2007; more recently, GOP senators attempted to publicly undermine Barack Obama's negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

While the vilification of Iran and Iranian people is nothing new, Trump's executive order is especially appalling; around a million Iranians live in the US, more than any other country affected by the ban. At every level, this ban is wrong-headed, xenophobic, and racist, and plays on traumatic feelings that many Iranians carry inside them. That trauma and angst has already resurfaced for so many. The order mandates a 90-day period when Iranian citizens cannot travel to the US, but the ban could go on longer if Iran doesn't provide the US government with more information on travelers.

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From VICE News Tonight: How one family affected by Trump's immigration order fought back

For Iranians and Iranian Americans, this executive order has already caused chaos and fear. It raises the stakes and triggers a deep anxiety and sense of foreboding about potential military aggression between the US and Iran. For the past 38 years, since the revolution and the hostage crisis, Iranian Americans like me have drifted between feelings punctuated by dread that Iran and the US would go to war, but we have also held onto an optimism that one day these two countries, with fates that have been intertwined for more than 70 years, would find friendship and understanding.

Trump's executive order has many pernicious effects, but for Iranian nationals and those in the diaspora, the ban has four particularly bad consequences:

  • It limits the capacity for Iranians to leave Iran and find asylum in the US if they are fleeing persecution and human rights abuses by their government (this includes gay people, religious minorities, political activists, and journalists).
  • It causes a loss of contact and exchange with Iranians on a cultural, scientific, and political level and will further erode our ability to build diplomatic relations.
  • For Iranian green-card holders and Iranian Americans, it makes it more difficult to see their families.
  • Most ominously of all, it adds to a growing fear that Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon are creating the conditions for a military conflict with Iran.

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For students and faculty members around the US and at universities in Europe and Australia, the ban throws their future into uncertainty. Within days of the order being signed, I received several emails and phone calls that expressed the distress that permeates the Iranian community. One student (who did not want her name used) called me and said, "I don't know if I will be able to even stay and continue my studies. If I cannot go home to see my family, visit my elderly parents, I don't know if I want to stay."

"We saved up for a year to afford  the application fees, my wife sold her wedding jewelry to pay for it. All that is gone now, in a blink of an eye. With one pen stroke. We are in anguish."

One graduate student who asked to be identified as Shi Ma (her Facebook name), a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, has had to cancel her fieldwork in the United States. "I was on my way to the US to present at the Intersectional Inquiries conference, had to cancel everything because of DT's executive order and, because simply, I'm an Iranian citizen," she wrote to me. "I have been too disappointed to write anything in the past few days. I have wasted months filling out all those ethics applications, grants and to plan all my interviews, etc.; this ban is just another version of the old and repetitive narrative we've been dealing with. It's all too much, and I know what it is to live in a dictatorship."

Sholeh, an Iranian citizen (a coworker of a former student of mine who returned to Iran several years ago) who had begun the process of applying for a PhD program at Stanford sent me this Facebook message written by her husband: "After graduating from Sharif University of Technology, the best university in my country, my wife and I had planned to pursue our PhDs in the US. Like many of my university peers, I dreamed of coming to Arizona State University and my wife of Stanford. We had begun the application process before Trump's election and though we were concerned about the problems we might have getting a visa, we remained positive. We saved up for a year to afford the application fees, my wife sold her wedding jewelry to pay for it. All that is gone now, in a blink of an eye. With one pen stroke. We are in anguish."

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Those outside academia are equally distressed by the executive order. "Even if the ban is overturned, the rhetoric has already had an impact," said Nazy Kaviani, director of Diaspora Arts Connection, a San Francisco–based cultural and arts organizations that brings Iranian performance artists, musicians, dancers, and writers to the Bay Area. "This ban will only add to our challenges, and it does nothing but close the doors on Iranians who have the most at stake." Kaviani explained that the vetting process to secure visas for artists and musicians coming from Iran and Europe is already lengthy and rigorous. "Sometimes artists have to wait for up to a year to get a visa to perform in the US for two weeks," Kaviani said.

For some Iranian artists, the process can take several years since they have to seek out a permit from their own government as well as a US visa to perform here. According to Kaviani, many artists go above and beyond in order to perform outside Iran since opportunities inside their home country are so limited.

For others like Firuzeh Mahmoudi, a Bay Area human rights activist and founder of United for Iran, the ban affects her and her colleagues personally and professionally. "Half of our staff are activists who were harassed and imprisoned by the Iranian regime," Mahmoudi said. "My colleagues fled Iran, waited for two to three years without legal papers, often in Turkey, and eventually entered the US as refugees. Now, they cannot leave the country for conferences, meetings, or trainings. They cannot visit their loved ones or have their loved ones visit them. Some are awaiting their green cards, which have been promised but not yet processed. Now they're uncertain of their fate."

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Most harmed by the ban are those inside Iran facing persecution from their own government: journalists, political activists, gay people, and religious minorities such as members of the Bahai' community. The Trump administration opposes the Iranian government, but this order harms Iranian citizens who find themselves at odds with the government in Tehran.

Nika Khanjani, a Bahai' friend who now lives in Montreal and whose family members in Iran have been harassed, imprisoned, and tortured by the government over several decades, said the ban and its anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian sentiments "work against the very thing that the US stands for." Many of her family members have received asylum in the United States, where they've been able to practice their faith, build communities, and attend university. "In Iran, Bahai's are not allowed to receive a higher education and have had to create a system of underground universities in order to advance themselves," she told me. "Leaving Iran is one of the only ways that Iranian Bahai's can advance their economic prospects and continue to practice their faith."

It's possible that the courts will eventually rule against the ban, but that legal battle is playing out right now. But even if it's overturned, the psychological damage on Iranians living and working in the United States, a place they call "home," will persist.

My cousin, Shahrooz Madjlessi, who works in the DC area and is a permanent legal resident, conveyed her distress to me about her parents' ability to visit her this year. She's a cancer survivor and has not seen her parents for some time. Her parents applied for a tourist visa six months ago and have been waiting for their clearance check ever since.

"They are 72 years old and have visited me twice, but never for more than five weeks at a time, even when I was at my most sick time," said Madjlessi. "Because I have been doubting whether my parents would ever get a visa, I had made plans to go to Iran this summer to visit them. I'm so angry because now I don't think I can go there either. It's just too risky."

Madjlessi said she doubts her parents will ever get the visa they paid and were approved for that gives them the right to visit her here. "I like my life. I live in a country where I have family, a home, a job, and friends I love, and where I pay taxes, but lately, I feel like a hostage," she said. "I'm being asked to choose between a life I've worked hard to establish as an immigrant and seeing my parents—the most precious people I have. This is just not right."

UPDATE 2/8/17: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of days citizens of the affected countries are banned from entering the US under the order.

Persis Karim is a professor of literature and creative writing at San Jose State University and the editor of three anthologies of Iranian diaspora literature. For more visit her website.