The Trump administration has done more to unify the Iranian American community than any of its predecessors.
This unity was on display Tuesday in a Federal court in Washington, D.C. as four Iranian-American organizations pursued a lawsuit against the latest iteration of the Trump travel ban, which affects citizens of six Muslim-majority nations but falls heaviest on Iranians.
Even though two other courts – in Hawaii and Maryland – have already stayed implementation of the March 6 executive order, the Iranian groups are suing in the nation’s capital to gain added legal ammunition for an anticipated argument before the Supreme Court. The suit also seeks more explicit guidance from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to U.S. customs, immigration and consular officials instructing them that Iranian travelers should no longer be subjected to restrictions apart from the already thorough vetting in place before Donald Trump took office.
In testimony on Tuesday, leaders of two Iranian American organizations – the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA) and the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) — gave evidence of the specific harm Trump’s actions have caused to their groups and to Iranian Americans as a whole.
The Trump executive orders have stigmatized the Iranian American community “as inherently more dangerous” than other Americans, said Babak Yousefzadeh, president of IABA, which has been swamped with requests for assistance since Trump signed the first order on Jan. 27. They are seen as terrorists and “second class citizens,” he said.
This is so, said PAAIA executive director Leila Golestaneh Austin, even though Iranian Americans have been among the most successful ethnic groups in the United States. A model minority of about one million people, Iranian Americans have a per capita income 50 percent higher than the national average, 50 percent are professionals or managers and 50 percent have intermarried with members of other ethnic groups, she said.
Silicon Valley is full of Iranian American entrepreneurs and hi-tech wizards who came to the US as students; Iranians also figure prominently in the medical and legal professions and are entering politics and government service. The highest-ranking Iranian politician is currently Cyrus Habib, lieutenant governor of Washington State. There are also more than 12,000 Iranians studying in US universities, often in highly prestigious scientific fields. According to the State Department, they contribute nearly $400 million annually to the US economy.
In her testimony on Tuesday, Austin quoted President Trump himself about the contribution of Iranians. In a Nowruz message, the president described Iranian Americans as “one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary history.”
Yet because of Trump’s actions, the witnesses said, Iranian Americans have had difficulty bringing relatives to the US for weddings, the birth of children and other significant life events. Iranian citizens with visas pending have seen interviews cancelled or applications stuck in administrative limbo. Planned exchanges with Iran have been put on hold and Iranian students have been reluctant to travel home for fear that they will not be readmitted. It is not yet clear whether the bans will depress the number of Iranians applying to study in the US.
These effects have occurred despite the fact that no American in this country has been killed by a visiting Iranian in a terrorist attack in memory – the ostensible concern of the new travel restrictions. Indeed, Iranian Americans have increasingly been the targets of hate crimes and violence from other Americans since the first Trump executive order, the witnesses said.
Trump’s actions have had one unanticipated benefit, unifying a community that is often divided by politics and holds a variety of views about policies the US government should adopt toward their homeland.
Morad Ghorban, director of government affairs and policy for PAAIA, called this unity “historic. For the first time, the Iranian American community is galvanized and united to protect the community’s interests and fight back,” he said.
According to annual surveys conducted by PAAIA, he added, 80 percent of Iranian Americans still have family in Iran and 50 percent have close relatives. The travel restrictions directly impact family reunions, Iranians’ ability to travel here for urgent medical care and feeds a hardline political narrative in Iran that is detrimental to the United States, he said.
The Trump administration will present its case to the court later this week. On Tuesday, attorneys for the Department of Justice seemed mostly confined to nit-picking, noting discrepancies about the bans on the PAAIA website and language in the second executive order that gives the government broad authority to waive restrictions and grant visas to Iranians. But to qualify for those visas, Iranians must show not only that they are not a threat to Americans but that their entry is in the US national interest – a hard standard to meet for someone coming to the US to attend a wedding or witness the birth of a child.
In his nearly 100 days in office, President Trump has radically changed positions on a number of issues. He has decided not to call China a currency manipulator, bombed Syria for its use of chemical weapons, discovered that NATO is not obsolete and that Russia is not always a benign actor.
His administration should also reverse itself on this unnecessary and harmful executive order and cease defending it in the courts. Citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen who manage to get permission to come to the US are potential contributors to American society, not national security threats. This is especially so of those coming from Iran, where Americans have long been respected and admired.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.