Barred By The Muslim Ban, Targeted In The U.S.: Iranian Americans Feel Trapped

Three years into the ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, many Iranian Americans say they feel caught up in political limbo with no solution in sight.

There are family members Mana Kharrazi has never met. The 35-year-old Iranian American who currently resides in New York has six uncles and aunts on her mother’s side and five on her father’s side ― some of whom are still in Iran.

“I’ve never been in the same room with my mom and all her siblings. I know I might never be able to,” Kharrazi said. “There’s a whole side of a family that I may never see or know.”

Kharrazi, a community activist, is the lead plaintiff in one of several lawsuits challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, which was signed three years ago Monday. On Tuesday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, will hear arguments from three different lawsuits to decide whether or not to dismiss the case entirely out of the lower courts.

Executive Order 13769, which has been revised several times and challenged repeatedly in federal courts, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018. That same year, the U.S. State Department rejected more than 37,000 visa applications because of the travel ban.

Since the ban’s enactment, couples have been forced to live apart and parents have been separated from their children. Some Americans have chosen to move to war-torn countries just so they could reunite with their families.

It wasn’t until September 2019, nearly three years after the original travel ban went into effect, that Congress finally held its first hearing on the executive order. The hearing at the time highlighted the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act ― also known as the No Ban Act ― a bill introduced by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) aiming to end the current ban and restrict future presidents from enacting similar bans.

On Monday, Coons and Chu held a press conference reiterating the call to pass the No Ban Act alongside Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and individuals directly impacted by the ban, including Kharrazi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Monday that the House Judiciary Committee will mark up and bring the No Ban Act to the floor for a vote in the coming weeks.

Despite these calls to end the travel ban, the Trump administration has doubled down on it and is expected to announce an expansion sometime this week. Trump did not disclose which countries might be added to the ban.

The consequences of that expansion would affect thousands of individuals on top of the thousands who are currently impacted, said Farhana Khera, the president, and director of Muslim Advocates, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that has been at the forefront challenging the ban and advocating for Muslim American civil rights.

“While the effect of the Muslim ban has receded from the headlines, this policy is alive and well and currently harming literally thousands of Americans as we speak,” Khan told HuffPost.

Iranian Americans like Kharrazi have found themselves ensnared in political purgatory. On the one hand, family members from Iran are barred from entering the United States, and their relatives, Iranian Americans, cannot travel back to their native country due to heightened political tensions. Students have been turned away at airports and have lost opportunities to attend prestigious American universities. Individuals have missed the birth of new family members. Weddings and funerals have passed unattended.

To complicate matters further, Iranians and Iranian Americans are concerned about an intensifying crackdown on their civil rights inside the country as well as at the border.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) listens during a joint hearing before House Judiciary Committee Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee and House Foreign Affairs Committee Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee September 24, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) listens during a joint hearing before House Judiciary Committee Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee and House Foreign Affairs Committee Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee September 24, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

After Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian government official Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, news broke that U.S. border agents held nearly 200 people of Iranian descent without explanation at the Washington state border with Canada. Some people were held for more than 10 hours. Nearly all of those held at the crossing were questioned about their place of birth and details of their family affairs. They were forced to hand over personal information such as where they worked, home addresses and phone numbers.

Last week, an allegation surfaced that U.S border officers were instructed to target and interrogate Iranian-born travelers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has since disputed the claim that officers detained Iranian Americans at the Peace Arch border crossing based on heritage. A CBP spokesperson told HuffPost in an earlier report that CBP officers performed additional screening on “individuals who present a known risk or individuals about whom we need more information to make a determination of risk.”

Between the de facto Muslim ban on travelers to the U.S., the international escalation and a crackdown on civil rights, many Iranian Americans say they feel trapped in a political battlefield with no solutions in sight.

“We have to witness the increased state repression and turmoil in Iran affecting our family and the fact is we can’t even have them come here even if we wanted to,” said Kharrazi. “And then watching our own rights be curtailed here and all of the egregious violations that CBP is committing against our families and community members here. It’s just terrible.”

On Tuesday’s hearing, the Justice Department will argue to have the case dismissed once and for all, while activists and lawyers hope to keep the challenges alive, to prove the ban is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Kharrazi knows firsthand how damaging the policy is to her family and to those around her. She hopes the court will see it as well so that one day she can reunite with her family.

“Every day we’re watching our rights become more and more diminished and curtailed,” said Kharrazi. “We are grieving, we are devastated and we’re enraged.”

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