President Donald Trump’s attempts to impose a visa ban on a set of majority-Muslim countries has sparked unusual anger and activism among a wealthy, highly educated group that generally avoids U.S. politics: Iranian Americans.
Now, they’re about to get their day in court, winning the first chance to present in-person testimony against the travel ban. Leaders of groups fighting the travel restrictions plan to use the opportunity to detail how students, medical researchers and others coming to America from Iran could be disproportionately hurt by Trump’s executive order.
The testimony in Washington on Tuesday, allowed by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, is an important moment not just for the fate of one of Trump’s signature initiatives, but also for Iranian Americans stunned by a measure they say is illogical, counterproductive and outsized in its impact on their community.
“It was a dagger in my heart as someone of Iranian-American heritage,” said Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney who is leading the litigation. “I really saw it as a flashpoint for this diaspora, over half a million strong, that has done so much to contribute to this country and is now in such danger of being potential scapegoats.”
A core part of Trump’s recent executive order aimed at limiting legal immigration was a temporary halt to the issuance of U.S. visas to citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Over the past two years, Iranians received more than half of the U.S. visas issued to passport holders from those six countries, according to State Department figures.
The visa ban is on hold for now due to court rulings in Maryland and Hawaii that found Trump’s executive order — which also pauses refugee admissions — was likely unconstitutionally tainted by anti-Muslim bias. Both decisions are being appealed.
There are two Iran-related suits being heard this week. One was filed in February by advocacy groups, including the National Iranian American Council and the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.
The plaintiffs include women planning weddings in the U.S. and trying to bring their parents from Iran, medical researchers concerned that if they return home to Iran they won’t be able to come back, and members of the LGBT community seeking refugee status because of anti-gay discrimination in Iran. Most are using pseudonyms in court papers because they fear retaliation from the U.S. government if identified. The leaders of the advocacy groups will be the ones testifying in court on Tuesday.
Trump administration lawyers objected to allowing live testimony, saying that written declarations were sufficient.
The second suit was filed late last month by the Universal Muslim Association of America, a Shiite Muslim religious group in coordination with Muslim Advocates, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. It argues Trump’s order has a particularly severe impact on Shiite Muslims because so many prominent clerics and scholars from that branch of Islam are based in Iran.
Trump has cast the visa ban as a national security measure aimed at keeping out potential terrorists, especially those recruited by groups such as the Islamic State. Iran is targeted in part because the United States labels it a state sponsor of terrorism for reasons including its support for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia blamed for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
“This is a country that has shown itself … capable of exporting terrorists and terrorism abroad,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last month.
But the broader Iranian community has been tied to very few terrorism cases inside the United States. Perhaps the best-known case came in 2012, when Iranian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen Mansour Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing the popular Café Milano in Washington.
Because most Iranians are Shiite Muslims, they are targets for killing by Sunni Muslim extremist groups like the Islamic State. In fact, Iranian-supported militias have fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi forces to beat back the Islamic State.
Critics allege Trump’s ban on Iranian travelers is prompted less by terrorism concerns than by his administration’s hostility toward Tehran and eagerness to curry favor with Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, technically U.S. partners in the fight against terrorism, are not targeted by the proposed visa ban even though their citizens have been involved in several attacks on Americans, including on Sept. 11, 2001.
Activists note that rather than target Iranian government officials or military leaders, many of whom are already under sanctions, the travel ban hits ordinary Iranians, including those who hope to escape the oppression of the Islamist regime in Tehran.
“In our eyes, this is essentially some form of collective punishment for the transgressions of the Iranian government,” said Elham Khatami, outreach director for the National Iranian American Council. “If anything, it helps the Iranian government because it furthers the narrative that the U.S. isn’t willing to treat Iranians like anyone else is treated.”
Although Trump has declared the ban on visas would be temporary — lasting 90 days — it could prove permanent for Iranians. That’s because Trump’s executive order appears to make lifting the ban conditional upon getting more information from targeted countries. But the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, making such cooperation unlikely.
Activists say the travel ban has energized the Iranian American community. Iranian Americans helped organize a protest that drew thousands outside the White House shortly after Trump’s first attempt at the visa ban came in late January. Advocacy groups have sought to keep up the energy even after courts halted the ban.
Kia Hamadanchy, a U.S.-born son of Iranian immigrants, was working as a legislative aide to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) when the Trump visa ban inspired him to run for a House seat from his home state of California. He’s hoping to unseat GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, who has many Iranian Americans in her Irvine, Calif.-area district.
“This is the most engaged I’ve ever seen the community,” said Hamadanchy, 31. “You look at Iranian Americans, and we are such a wealthy, educated, affluent population, but we don’t have the political power that we should. If we can’t come together right now in the face of Donald Trump and stand up, it’s never going to happen.”
Studies have found that Iranian Americans are among the most successful communities in the United States. Many live in southern California, where they or their parents fled after Islamist forces took control of Iran following the late 1970s Iranian revolution. Iranians are prominent in fields such as medicine, business and technology, including in Silicon Valley. The community’s affluence has been captured — or lampooned — by the reality show “Shahs of Sunset,” which focuses on Iranians living in the Beverly Hills area.
While many Iranian Americans are left-leaning, they are hardly a cohesive political bloc. Some supported Trump because they thought he would take a tough line toward the regime in Tehran. Many others, scarred by upheavals in Iran, try to avoid politics altogether. In general, however, Iranian Americans oppose Islamist rule.
While Iranian Americans may be upset with Trump, Iran’s inclusion on the visa ban list has roots in a 2015 law signed by President Barack Obama. In a compromise with Congress to avoid gutting the refugee program, Obama agreed to require visas from people whose countries are usually visa-exempt if they were dual nationals of or had recently traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen or Libya.
The Trump administration has pointed to that Obama-era law as a basis for its own restrictions. Trump’s first attempt at a visa ban included Iraq, but after lobbying by Iraqi officials, who noted they were helping America fight the Islamic State, Trump removed Iraq from his second draft of the ban in early March.
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, said some restrictions on Iran’s government made sense, but he disagreed with slapping a ban on Iranians wishing to come to the United States.
“Many of the people who are going to be impacted by this are no fans of the Iranian regime,” Jeffrey said. “It really doesn’t make any sense.”