At the time of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, I was a teenager, completely unfazed by the events unfolding. My brother and I were both going to school in the U.K. and my older sister had already immigrated to the U.S. When the revolution peaked in late 1978, my parents were visiting my sister in Los Angeles. Tragically, within two months, our 2500-year monarchy was replaced with a repressive and regressive Islamic system of governance in February 1979. I was the last one of my family who was able to arrive in the U.S., later in 1979 to complete high school.
As with many Iranians, our extended family was scattered by the new regime. My mom’s cousin was executed for being a senator in the Shah’s government. To retrieve his body, we had to pay for the bullets used by the firing squad. My uncle was accused of crimes against humanity for being the Chief of Police in Tehran at the time of the revolution. He went into hiding and stayed there until his death many years later. My younger sister, her husband, and their baby were jailed for attempting to escape from the country on foot.
Stateside, we were dealing with the fallout from the horrendous hostage crisis where American diplomats were detained for 444 days in Iran. Agents from the FBI visited our home and interviewed all of us. Life was volatile, but at least we felt relatively safe in America.
I never felt unwelcome in my new country. In fact, America gave me every opportunity to excel and I tried my best to return the favor, as did the vast majority of my compatriots.
Over the next several decades, the Iranian community made tremendous contributions to our adopted homeland. The Small Business Administration (SBA) cites Iranian-Americans among the top 20 immigrant groups with the highest rate (21.5%) of business ownership, generating a total net business income of over $2.5 billion. U.S. Census data reveals that almost 60% of us have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 28%.
Following the tragic San Bernardino terror attack, Dr. Michael Neeki, an Iranian-American trauma physician at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and a member of the San Bernardino SWAT team, risked his own life to rush and aid the wounded while another Iranian American – Bennetta Betbadal – a victim of the terror attack – was already dead at the Inland Regional Center. Unfortunately, since the tragedy, politicians have used the shooting to swiftly pass discriminatory legislation known as H.R. 158 – the Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015, without any debate. In fact, within a day, 33 House members who had voted “Yes” on the bill publicly stated that they had made a mistake, rushing to vote for a bill without looking at the unintended consequences.
H.R. 158 collectively punishes dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan by excluding them from the Visa Waiver program. This law directly and adversely affects all Iranian Americans, regardless of their travel history or immediate connection to Iran. Due to reciprocity, it is highly likely that all Visa Waiver eligible countries will enact the same restrictions towards dual Iranian-American nationals. Should this happen, it will immediately result in a two-tier American citizenry – those who would need a visa to visit, say London, and those who wouldn’t. That is the start of a very dangerous slippery slope.
It is fair to ask why Iranian Americans don’t give up their Iranian citizenship. First, Iranians are proud of their rich cultural heritage, notwithstanding the present government in Tehran. It is also very difficult to renounce Iranian citizenship. Article 976 of the Civil Code of Iran, in part, defines an Iranian as those born in Iran or outside whose father is Iranian AND every woman of foreign nationality who marries an Iranian husband. To give up my Iranian nationality, I would have to make a proclamation to the Iranian Parliament in person. Considering my advocacy for the LGBT community and wider human rights in Iran, I don’t anticipate a visit to that country anytime soon.
My migration to the U.S. has been a blessing. I am eternally thankful to America for the opportunities it has provided me. I am proud to live in a country that has always treated me fairly. But for the first time in my life, I am wary of my government and concerned about its lack of accountability, especially in creating this discriminatory piece of legislation, which was hastily drawn up and shoved into a must-pass omnibus spending bill. These provisions will have devastating consequences and will do nothing to increase American security. This legislation must be amended to reflect our nation’s humanity, and I urge Congress to do so immediately.
Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee