by Leila Mansouri
Generations of Iranians like my parents have admired the United States for almost everything. They wanted their children to attend American universities, promoted America as the land of great opportunities, and proudly sent invitations to friends for their U.S. citizenship ceremonies.
But many Iranian Americans today are confused and frightened by the wave of unjust immigration policies targeting Iranians. President Trump’s executive orders (“travel bans”) banning Iranians and imposing new restrictions have reduced America’s allure for young Iranians inside Iran, as well as members of the Iranian American community. There are over one million Iranians in the United States. In fact, many Iranian Americans voted for Trump (and regretted that when the travel ban happened). Moreover, it is estimated that approximately 40% of Iranian Americans vote Republican (mainly for economic reasons).
The harm from the travel ban has been more profoundly hurtful to Iranian Americans than may be apparent. Yet, every cloud has a silver lining. Iranian Americans are discovering another important attribute of the United States: the strength of participatory citizenship and collectivism.
Over the last few decades, Iranian Americans have kept out of politics and kept their heads down, choosing to focus their efforts in the science, technology, medical, legal, and entrepreneurial sectors instead. This is probably due to witnessing what happened in our homeland, where political involvement often led to corruption, prison, torture, and death. Iranian Americans now realize that without common action, they cannot preserve their civil liberties. If they want their community to prosper, they must come together in the face of challenges.
Of all the minority groups in the United States, Iranian Americans are among the top for education, wealth, and culture assimilation. Although many of us are doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers, a number of us are also teachers, hairdressers, taxi drivers, and shop owners. Iranian Americans work everywhere, from the NFL, NASA, Google, and eBay, to President Trump’s administration and every other major government agency.
Iran’s inclusion in the travel ban list of countries clearly discriminates against Iranian Americans. Many Trump supporters blame the Obama administration for Iran’s inclusion in the current travel ban, because Obama passed the HR158 Visa Waiver bill last year, which listed Iran as one of the targeted countries. However, President Obama was practically forced to pass HR158 to avoid another government shut down, because Congresswoman Candice Miller (MI) slid it into the Omnibus Appropriations bill shortly after the Iran nuclear deal was signed.
As the president of the Iranian American Bar Association’s Washington DC chapter and a national board member, I am proud to call myself an Iranian American community organizer. Just days after the first travel ban launched our community into chaos—tearing families apart, leading to canceled consular interviews, and causing uncertainty and severe delays in the immigration system—I found myself in Iranian American Civil Rights attorney Cyrus Mehri’s conference room in Washington DC (Mehri & Skalet). Also there were representatives of three other major Iranian American organizations (Pars Equality Center, PAAIA, NIAC), several distinguished lawyers, and partners from the law firm Arnold & Porter (APKS). All of our organizations have substantially drained our resources to help individuals harmed by the travel ban. In addition, we were all in Washington DC District Court last week as organizational plaintiffs fighting the travel ban (EndTheTravelBan).
Iranian Americans need to learn from the experiences of other minority groups in America. When Irish immigrants arrive in the United States today, they do not confront the racism and discrimination that their predecessors experienced. This is because the Irish American community secured their prosperity and social position by actively lobbying for equal status and fair treatment. I am encouraged to see more Iranian Americans seeking public offices. But as a community, we must become more politically engaged in selecting our representatives and then continue to advocate for our issues once they’re in office.
For the past seven years, I have volunteered countless hours to organizing events and initiatives to connect and empower Washington DC area Iranians. This includes co-hosting events that introduce distinguished members of government to the Iranian American community. The former director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Leon Rodriguez, told me that he was surprised to see our invitation last year and delighted to accept it, because we are a community that no one ever hears from.
We must also increase our presence in the media. Image-building is crucial to our effectiveness, and involves voice, visibility, and validation. When the American public sees and hears a sophisticated and professional Iranian American speak on behalf of the community, this shapes the image of the community and increases our own impact on the media.
There are only a few Iranian American community organizers and groups in every major city, but there are over one million Iranians in the United States, and we need to use our numbers to be heard. Our strong, amazing women must be in the public eye more. We need to engage in local politics and invite our representatives over for tea. Now more than ever, the Iranian community has united. We must use this opportunity, inadvertently provided by the Trump administration, to translate our numbers into political power.
Photo of travel ban protest rally in Boston by Kristin Shoemaker via Flickr.
Leila Mansouri is the Washington DC Chapter president of the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA). Formed in the year 2000, the IABA is an all-volunteer, non-partisan organization with seven chapters nationwide, and a membership of prominent judges, attorneys, and law students. Leila currently runs her own immigration and general law practice in the Washington DC Metro area. She has given interviews to various media outlets about issues facing the Iranian American community (CNN Interview on the Travel Ban). She was born and raised in Virginia.