The attempts of President Donald Trump to bar entry into the United States to nationals of six Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, have compelled previously disaggregated Iranian-American organizations to make common cause in and out of court.

The “Muslim ban” may also spark a rethinking of Iranian-American identity, writes Semira N. Nikou in Middle East Report Online.

On January 27, President Trump kicked off the furor by signing Executive Order 13769, which restricted the entry into the US of visitors, including valid visa holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—for a period of 90 days. The order, immediately dubbed the “Muslim ban” by its opponents, also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees, and for 120 days that of all refugees under the US Refugee Admissions Program.

The order sowed widespread fear and confusion, not least because the text did not clarify the categories of travelers to which it applied. For example, the White House originally said that the ban also applied to lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, but soon reversed that position under pressure.

The punitive effects, however, were immediate. Media accounts estimated that 100 to 200 people were detained upon arrival at US airports.  Tens of thousands of visas were revoked. And the Department of Homeland Security reported that between the issuance of the order and February 1, more than 900 people headed to the US were stopped from boarding planes overseas.The actual numbers are probably higher.

The Iranian-American community was particularly hard hit. The Washington Post, using State Department figures, calculated that of the 90,000 visas issued to nationals of the seven designated countries in fiscal year 2015, the most recent year for which data was available, nearly half were granted to applicants from Iran. This proportion rose to roughly 57 percent when excluding statistics on Iraqi nationals. Presumably, there is currently a similar number of Iranians with US visas, the majority of whom would now be barred from entry if the order were to continue to apply. The State Department has announced that the ban would affect roughly 60,000 visa holders from the designated countries without specifying how many of those people would be Iranian nationals. The high proportion of Iranians in the visa data is clearly associated with the large number of Iranians who immigrated to the US after the 1979 revolution and the continued interaction between citizens of both countries, precisely because of the large number of Iranian-Americans, many of whom are now second- or even third-generation.

Additionally, the executive order stated that, during the suspension period, the secretary of homeland security would consult with the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence in conducting a review to determine the information required from foreign countries concerning subject travelers. If any foreign country failed to provide the requested information within a 60-day window, its nationals could be subject to an indefinite ban. As a matter of logic, the likelihood of a permanent ban against Iranian nationals seemed ominously high. The two countries lack formal diplomatic relations, and neither side is generally keen to share information with the other. Sure enough, after news of the order broke, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that information requests could not be “accommodated by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Iranian-Americans Go to Court

The four largest Iranian-American organizations, and more than a dozen individual plaintiffs, have entered the legal battle. In Pars Equality Center v. Trump, they filed a lawsuit against the original ban on February 8 and later amended their complaint after issuance of the March 6 order. It is the first time that the Pars Equality Center, the Iranian American Bar Association, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) have joined together in court. Other civil rights groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Center for Constitutional Rights, joined as amici (a term referring to groups that are not parties to the case but who provide their views, which the court may use in making its decision).  The first hearing in the case took place on April 18 in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

The suit raises many of the same constitutional and statutory claims that underpin other cases against the ban concerning the government’s religion- and national origin-based discrimination, and the deprivation of people’s liberty interests without due process of law. The plaintiffs also argue that the travel ban violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause—any law that has the purpose of favoring or disfavoring a particular religion runs afoul of this clause—and offer ample evidence of various occasions on which Trump administration officials and advisers, including the president himself, expressed an intent to target Muslims.

Various individual Iranians who are US lawful permanent residents or visa holders also sued, in courts in Massachusetts, California, New York and other states, to challenge their detention or visa revocation.

Additionally, NIAC joined 73 other organizations as amici in Maslenjak v. US, a case currently before the Supreme Court, to push for broader protections for naturalized citizens against denaturalization.  At issue in the case is whether to allow the government to strip naturalized American citizens of their citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement during the immigration process. While not related to the travel ban, the case’s outcome could have significant repercussions for how immigrants—including Iranians—experience US citizenship and the vulnerabilities they face as naturalized US citizens. Further, it is perhaps a harbinger of an increasing need for Iranian-American organizations to focus on how Iranian-Americans define and shape their role as a minority group in the US, and the kinds of alliances they need to form with other civil rights groups in doing so.

Read the full article in Middle East Research and Information Project

Read complete Farsi translation

  • Semira N. Nikou is an attorney based on Honolulu. She was previously a law fellow with the US Mission to the World Trade Organization, and worked at the Public International Law & Policy Group and the US Institute of Peace.
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