The decision by a federal judge in Hawaii to block the Trump administration’s second attempt at banning travel to the United States by citizens of a half dozen Muslim-majority nations is another victory for tolerance, democracy and national security.
The ban, which was due to go into effect today, would have been especially harmful to US policy toward Iran. Iranians make up 58 percent of those granted US visas annually from among the six designated nations, which also include Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Syria. In recent years, about 30,000 Iranians have come to the US annually to study and see relatives, who are among the most productive and successful immigrants in the United States.
The Trump administration has taken a harsh tone toward the Islamic Republic for its intervention in Arab civil wars, missile launches and support of groups that the US State Department brands as terrorists. But past US administrations have always distinguished between the Iranian government and the Iranian people, many of whom hold the US in high regard and who would welcome a decrease in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Recognizing this dichotomy, a Republican president – George W. Bush – expanded consular facilities in countries surrounding Iran to facilitate Iranian travel to the US. According to a report by the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force, the Bush administration also made the decision to include Iranians in a variety of US-backed exchange programs. From 2006 to 2009, “over 250 Iranians, including artists, athletes, medical professionals, and teachers of Persian, participated in exchange programs in the United States,” the report said.
Hundreds of others have come since then, including athletic teams that have competed in international competitions and goodwill games. American athletes, in turn, have gone to Iran and been treated like rock stars. There has also been an uptick in Americans traveling to Iran as tourists.
After dropping to negligible levels during the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the number of Iranian students in the US now exceeds 12,000. Many are graduate students in cutting edge scientific fields. Making it more difficult for them to come to America would harm US educational institutions, scientific research and the US economy.
At a celebration in Washington on the evening of March 15 in honor of the upcoming Iranian New Year, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) broke the news of the Hawaii judge’s decision to cheers from an impressive crowd of Iranian Americans. The audience was full of doctors, lawyers, scientists and entrepreneurs – the sort of people who have made this country great and who continue to contribute to its prosperity.
While the White House touted its revised ban as protecting the US from foreign terrorists, it actually undermined US interests by validating the anti-American propaganda of extremist groups. Iranians and others from the designated countries already face “extreme vetting” that takes many months and effectively prevents those with malign intent from coming to the United States.
There have been no terrorist acts committed in the US by Iranian travelers. David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, told a panel on Capitol Hill on March 13 that the chances of an American being killed by a foreign-born terrorist in the US over the past 40 years is 1 in 3.6 billion. Even that tiny number is largely accounted for by those killed on Sept. 11, 2001 in a plot carried out primarily by Saudis and Egyptians.
Of terrorist acts since then, the majority have been committed by native-born Americans, many of them radicalized on the Internet. No visa ban could eliminate – and indeed might enhance — such radicalization.
Judging from remarks by the president, the Trump administration appears determined to keep fighting in the courts to reduce travel and immigration from Muslim-majority nations.
A new budget proposed by the White House could be a backdoor means of depressing such travel if it succeeds in cutting funding for the State Department and its consular branch. Exchange programs are also at risk.
Opponents of these bans and budget cuts are also determined to continue their advocacy. This is a time for all those who believe that America’s greatness comes from its openness and diversity to stand up for those beliefs and for the Constitutional safeguards of US democracy.
Barbara Slavin is acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative.