Over the past several weeks, Iranian Americans and our friends in the Arab American community have grappled with the reality that, soon, we may face new restrictions on our travel simply because of our heritage.
Under a new law passed by Congress, certain dual nationals are now barred from the U.S. Visa Waiver Program and thousands of European dual nationals have been notified that they are no longer welcome to travel to the U.S. visa-free. Because the program is based on reciprocity, the EU and others could soon impose similar restrictions on travel abroad for Americans of Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese or Syrian descent.
Why has Congress decided that it is okay to institute a discriminatory program of heritage-profiling against dual nationals, and invited similar discrimination against American citizens based on their national origin or family heritage?
At a House hearing last week we got a disturbing answer: we hold "dual loyalties".
Jessica Vaughan, a lawyer from the Center for Immigration Studies, testified that Iranian Americans were misguided in their activism against the new law, saying, "if Iranian Americans still want to be Iranian citizens, then they cannot legitimately object when other countries treat them like Iranian citizens who live in Iran." Instead, according to Vaughan, Iranian Americans and other dual nationals deserve to have our rights limited. "The fact is that people who retain more than one nationality are indicating that they have not fully renounced their allegiance to their country of origin despite attaining citizenship in another country," she testified.
These remarks are outrageous and should have been rejected by lawmakers at the hearing. The charge of "dual loyalty" is an accusation that has been leveled at immigrant and diaspora communities throughout some of the ugliest moments in this nation's history to justify heinous actions against them--the most notorious example being the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It has no place as the foundation for U.S. law.
The fact is that dual nationality is often not a choice. In the case of Iranian dual nationals, anyone whose father is an Iranian national is considered by that government to also be an Iranian national.
There are some efforts underway to implement the new law in such a manner that it does not target people who never actively sought out or affirmed their Iranian citizenship. However, any Iranian American who has ever visited Iran--or ever plans to visit Iran--would likely still be considered a dual national because they can only travel to Iran as Iranian citizen on an Iranian passport.
There are approximately 900,000 Iranian passports held by Americans according to the Iranian interests section, and a full 88 percent of the roughly 1.5 million Americans of Iranian descent were either born in Iran or travel to Iran according to polling data. All of these Americans are now at risk of having the their U.S. passport treated differently than those of other Americans because of their heritage.
Visiting your family in Iran does not connote an "allegiance" to the Iranian government. Being born to an Iranian parent does not make you less of an American. But circumscribing the rights of certain Americans on the basis of their family heritage is profoundly un-American.
The promise of United States, whether we are first generation or tenth generation Americans, is that we do not condemn our citizens to a fate decided by their birth--including family heritage. For some this promise was granted when they first stepped on U.S. soil, for others it is a promise that has only been fulfilled through struggle, but it is a promise that is fundamental to America nonetheless.
We should have a legitimate conversation about how to keep our country safe. The dual nationals prohibitions in this law would not have targeted either of the San Bernardino killers or blocked any of the 9/11 hijackers from entering the U.S. Even those who fail to grasp the danger of profiling must countenance this fact. Profiling on the basis of national origin or family heritage does not make Americans safer, but it would undermine U.S. protections in place to prevent such discrimination and is an ominous signal of the direction in which we are headed.
Having now imposed these discriminatory restrictions, the President should waive and Congress should repeal the dual-nationals restrictions in order to ensure reciprocal measures do not target Americans. Unfortunately, partisan pressure and political posturing risks blocking a resolution of this problem. We are in the midst of a new bout of bigotry and xenophobia. If our leaders don't wake up to the danger of restricting people's rights and opportunities based on their heritage, we risk allowing a fundamental principle of what the United States stands for to erode--and all Americans will have much to lose.