April 5, 2018
Trump Visa Restrictions Undermine US Outreach to the Iranian People
By Mehrnaz Samimi
The US president has repeatedly cast himself as being on the Iranian people’s side, including amid widespread anti-government protests that took place in Iran in late December and January, and in a message to Iranians last October.
Practically, however, he could have not adopted a more rigid, less humane approach. For the people of Iran – more than the government -- have been the ultimate victim of his policies.
In 2005, I moved to the United States, taking my then toddler daughter from the heart of a loving family, accepting a job with the US government. All I knew was the English language, and all I had was hope in my heart.
At the Voice of America, where I worked for nearly a decade, I faithfully conveyed America's viewpoints and policies to Iranians whose domestic news sources are state-controlled and tailored to paint the US in the worst possible light.
Upon leaving VOA in 2014, I knew that I still could not visit my relatives in Iran without putting them and myself in jeopardy. By then, I had US citizenship and had given up my Iranian passport.
In the years since I’ve been away from Iran, I’ve missed seeing my dad grow into old age, my only niece say my name and the final years of my late, beloved grandmother. Last summer, I decided to invite my father, who is 82, to visit me in the US. Normally, US consulates waive tourist visa interviews for applicants older than 80. But under stringent new procedures introduced by the Trump administration, my dad’s interview was not waived.
In my invitation letter to my father, I explained why I am unable to visit Iran. My father gathered his bank statements and property records, had them translated into English, and traveled to Ankara for the interview with a consular officer. He was told his visa had been approved and would be issued soon.
I checked the website twice a day, expecting good news each time. But nothing happened. “Administrative processing” was the name of the waiting game. I heard it might mean a background check. But what would that entail for an 82-year-old who had been retired for 20 years? I wrote three emails in the span of seven months, asking the reason for the hold-up. There was never a response.
On March 10, ten days before Nowruz, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I felt helpless, useless. My sole consolation was the hope that he would be visiting soon. We could get a second opinion in the States, or even seek treatment here.
I started checking the consulate website four times a day. I sent another email. Finally, a few hours before the Spring Equinox, I saw a response in my inbox. My heart skipped a beat, thinking this was the best Nowruz gift I could get. I opened the email: “Dear Applicant, your non-immigrant visa applicant was refused under the presidential proclamation.”
My father had applied for a visa long after the “presidential proclamation” after US courts blocked and then watered down several versions of the Trump travel ban against Iranians and citizens of a half dozen other mostly Muslim states. If the State Department had decided not to issue any more visas to Iranians, why wasn’t that announced? Was the US government more interested in the non-refundable fees it charges for visa appointments?
Before the Trump administration, thousands of Iranians used to come to the US to see their relatives or to study at US universities. But numbers have dropped drastically even though family members are supposed to be excluded from the new travel restrictions. According to a recent study by Politico, in February, 2018, only 743 people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen received visitor visas – less than a quarter of the 2016 monthly average of 4,454 for those six countries. Iran, as the most populous of the six, has been the most affected.
For older people, traveling between Iran and the United States is not easy. They come here because they miss so much of their children’s lives and want to make up for lost time.
Sometimes, they have more urgent reasons. Reuters reported that an Iranian who was previously denied a visa to travel to the US to donate bone marrow to his brother who has cancer, was finally permitted to do so, since he was a 100 percent match. According to Reuters, the decision was overturned after an attorney appealed. Does that mean that Iranians who want to travel to the US must have an ironclad medical excuse and a US lawyer to fight for their case?
As the president surrounds himself with Iran hawks such as his incoming national security advisor John Bolton and soon-to-be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US is going to need all the allies it can get, and most importantly, the support of the Iranian people. But if the US treats Iranians the way they did my father, the road ahead is going to be long and fraught.
President Trump! I spent nine years doing my best working for the US government. I do not need your Nowruz message. I wish you would instead change your inhumane policies toward ordinary Iranians and Iranian-Americans.
Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist, simultaneous interpreter, and Iran expert in Washington, DC.