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Letter From a 23-Year-Old Iranian American

To make America safer and more secure, we should avoid sweeping policy changes that target specific population sets. This misses the mark entirely.
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U.S. passport with an Iranian passport on a white background
U.S. passport with an Iranian passport on a white background

If it weren't for my Persian nose, I would be practically indistinguishable from any other young American woman.

I was born in Seattle, raised in Scottsdale, and currently work and reside in New York City. My mom was born in Tennessee, and my father in Tehran. Both are originally Iranian, but have proudly called this country home for more than four decades. I personally have stepped foot inside Iran only twice: once in 1997, at age five, to visit my grandfather; and once in 2010, on a family vacation to visit cultural sites in Tehran and Esfahan.

After our trip, my dad was even more thrilled to be back in the U.S. than I was. He is undoubtedly the most patriotic American that I know, crediting this country -- and all of its glorious freedoms and opportunities -- for every blessing in our lives.

Last month, in response to the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, new restrictions were passed through Congress entitled the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (H.R. 158). From 1986 until this point, the Visa Waiver Program had allowed citizens of 38 countries, predominantly in Europe, to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.

H.R. 158 prohibits two groups of people from traveling to the United States without a visa: First, people who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan since March 1, 2011; and second, those who are considered dual nationals of the above mentioned four countries.

Under reciprocity agreements, these 38 countries are authorized to enforce copycat travel restrictions on Americans with the same dual nationalities. Ambassadors of the twenty-eight European member states wrote an open letter advising Congress to vote against the bill. They rightly warned that the bill would negatively impact more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the U.S. every year.

Just a few days ago, H.R. 158 was implemented and a prominent Iranian-British journalist working for the BBC was prevented from boarding her plane to the states. If copycat laws against Americans are enacted, I will face similar restrictions when it comes to traveling abroad. I will be forced to undergo grueling, expensive, and invasive security processes to secure a visa for international travel. On the other hand, my friends with Italian, Irish, or Polish backgrounds will face no such obstacles.

Furthermore, the overarching principle behind H.R. 158 is contrary to rudimentary American values. The law discriminates against select groups of people and populations based solely on their national origin-- a deeply disturbing and imprudent measure. As an American - born and raised - I should not be treated differently than anybody else. I should be able to hop on a plane and go to Europe if I feel like it. I should not be treated as some sort of second-class American citizen.

Supposedly, these restrictions were designed to help diminish the threat of terrorism. I concur with the premise behind this idea: the Visa Waiver Program should certainly be reformed, and safeguarding our national security should be top priority. But history has taught us that targeting people based on their national origin is never the solution. In practice, the dual nationality clause of the bill does exactly this.

According to the U.S. Department of State, "The concept of dual nationality means that a person is a national of two countries at the same time. Each country has its own nationality laws based on its own policy. Persons may have dual nationality by automatic operation of different laws rather than by choice."

Iranian law, for example, asserts that anyone born in the country -- or born to an Iranian father or grandfather -- is an Iranian citizen. In other words, even if I do not consider myself a citizen of Iran, the Iranian government does not see it that way. Moreover, Iranian Americans who wish to visit family in Iran are only allowed to do so if they carry an Iranian passport. Therefore, dual citizenship becomes a necessity rather than a choice. Iraq, Syria and Sudan have similarly troublesome laws in place.

Ironically, the majority of Iranians living in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, are the ones who fled the oppressive regime of the Islamic Republic in search of a better life. Their children, and their children's children, were born and raised abroad, and many have never even been to Iran. Yet, H.R. 158 targets them.

The good news is that there is an ongoing bipartisan effort to eliminate the dual national clause of the bill. On January 13, 2016, Senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dick Durban (D-Ill.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) led the charge by introducing the Equal Protection in Travel Act.

I urge lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, to join this movement. To make America safer and more secure, we should avoid sweeping policy changes that target specific population sets. This misses the mark entirely. Instead, the U.S. should evaluate each person entering our country based on the specific threat that he or she may pose, not by where his or her parents came from.

I also call upon my fellow Iranian Americans to step up to the plate. There is no doubt that Iranian Americans are some of the most successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, philanthropists and scientists in this country. All of this success is useless, however, if we remain complacent when it comes to civic participation.

This proposed legislation is our opportunity to right the wrongs of H.R. 158. We live in the world's greatest democracy, but it will only work effectively if we are informed and active citizens, voice our interests, and collectively hold our public officials accountable. This is what the America we know and love is all about.

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