Measures to tighten the US visa waiver program passed through Congress last month, impacting hundreds of thousands of Iranian Americans.
Dr Firouz Naderi has served America for 35 years, climbing the ranks at Nasa, landing spacecraft on Mars and meeting Michelle Obama at the White House. But lately, he feels he has been treated like a second-class citizen in the country he calls home.
Iranian-born Naderi, a senior scientist at America’s space agency, fears that new visa regulations passed in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks will unfairly discriminate against himself and hundreds of thousands of Iranian Americans – even those born in the US.
Measures to tighten the US visa waiver program were passed through Congress last month as part of the omnibus spending bill. People from 38 countries including Britain and France could previously visit the US for up to 90 days without a visa. But thanks to a provision folded into the bill, those citizens must now obtain a visa if they are dual Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese or Syrian citizens.
Under reciprocity agreements, these 38 countries are entitled to impose copycat travel restrictions on Americans with the same dual nationalities; leaving many Iranian Americans – who contend that no Iranians have been linked to terrorist incidents in the west – incensed at both the practical implications and the principle.
“If [the list of countries] included Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, then you would sort of think that they painted with a very wide brush and it included Iran,” said Naderi, 69, director of solar system exploration at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory. “This is not based on logic. This is based on agenda,” he added.
“From what we understand, adding Iran to the list was at the 11th hour. It was originally Iraq and Syria, then at the 11th hour, they attached Iran to it, so it just smacks of somebody with an agenda that brought this about. There is no way to logically come to the conclusion that Iran belonged to that list.
“If Europe reciprocates and says, ‘If our hyphenated Iranians will have to get a visa to come to the US, then American-hyphenated Iranians need to get a visa to come to Europe,’” Naderi said.
“Even people who weren’t planning to go Europe, or they haven’t gone to Europe let’s say for the last 20 to 30 years, are saying: ‘Why the hell us?’”
Iranian Americans do not have the option of renouncing their Iranian ancestry to circumvent the problem. Iran considers anyone born in the country, or born to an Iranian father, to be an Iranian national, leaving many Americans of Iranian descent with no choice over their own dual identities.
Naderi moved to the US in 1964, studied for a PhD and returned to Iran before emigrating to the US for good after the 1979 Iranian revolution. He has not been back to his country of birth since, having joined Nasa almost immediately after permanently moving to the US. In a distinguished career, Naderi has worked in various roles including managing the programme that landed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. He has also been a guest of the first lady at the White House.
The visa restrictions could also affect US secretary of state John Kerry’s son-in-law Brian Nahed, who was born in the US but is of Iranian descent and Andre Agassi, the 1992 Wimbledon champion who is the son of an Olympic boxer from Iran. They would also affect many influential Silicon Valley leaders, including Twitter chairman Omid Kordestani, Uber director Shervin Pishevar, Expedia chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi and Dropbox co-founder Arash Ferdowsi who, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, all hold the US and Iranian citizenship.
Ali Partovi, who moved to the US from Iran at age 11 and helped launch Code.org, a nonprofit which focuses on getting more women and minorities into computer science, says that the new rule amounts to “discrimination based on national heritage”.
Active on Facebook, Naderi says the Iranian American community is dismayed by Congress’s little-noticed case of discrimination. “They believe this was an unjust act, to attach Iranians under the label of, ‘We need to scrutinise people coming here if they’re of Iranian background,’ to be vigilant on the issue of terrorism because they rightly point out: show us the last time there was a single act of terrorism initiated by an Iranian citizen. Basically, there isn’t any.”
According to the US census bureau, there are 470,341 Americans with Iranian ancestry, although some estimates put
the figure above a million, with the biggest concentration in California. Nadereh Chamlou of the National Iranian American Council said: “The reason Congress put Iran on the list is a quirk because Iran is on another list as an exporter of terrorism, not because they have caught an Iranian blowing himself up. This has never happened, never. I would like to know where they have found a single Iranian terrorist.
“This is why we feel we are being singled out. Iraq and Syria are warzones and I cannot comment on Sudan. Everywhere we have gone as Iranians, we have been exemplary citizens.”
Naderi suspects the measure was intended as a swipe at Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which will see some sanctions lifted soon in return for Tehran abandoning its nuclear weapons programme. In addition to the dual citizenship restrictions, a visa waiver will now not be granted to anyone who has travelled to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the past five years.
“If you’re a businessman in Europe and you’re thinking about doing business in Iran once the sanctions are lifted, and maybe you have continuing business interests in the US, you might think twice about going to Iran because that’s going to impact your travelling to America, where it may be your prime market. You might say, ‘It would have been nice to go but it’s just not worth the penalty of now having to get a visa to go to the US.’ So in some way it’s a perpetuation of the sanctions,” said Naderi.
“America’s my country. It has blemishes, warts, but to be honest with you given all that I would still prefer living here to living anywhere else.”
Others have also expressed their dismay. This week Kourosh Kolahi, an orthopedic surgeon, wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle: “Because of the little-noticed visa reform language included in the federal omnibus spending bill, I am now treated differently than my wife, daughter and other fellow Americans. I was born in this country and have spent my entire life here. I am a proud American; this is my home. Yet, based on our ancestry, this law discriminates against me and other Americans.”
Not every member of Congress supported the amended rules. A group of 33 House Democrats wrote a letter, ultimately in vain, that warned: “Making sure that we avoid as many unintended consequences as possible is particularly important when we are proposing to disqualify specific populations of people from long standing immigration practices. Fundamentally, people seeking entry into our country should be evaluated based on the specific security risk that they themselves pose — not where their parents are from.”
The State Department’s website now carries an “important notice” stating that the Department of Homeland Security has begun the process of implementing changes to the traveller eligibility requirements of the visa waiver program. Beth Finan, a spokesperson, said: “Any reciprocal action by European countries is, at this point, a hypothetical situation, and we would not want to speculate.”
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