In Persian, the word Nowruz means “new day” – a fitting name for a holiday that marks both the Iranian New Year and the beginning of spring.
Nowruz underscores the importance of family in Iranian culture – a value strongly upheld by the estimated 1 to 1.5 million or more Iranian Americans living in the United States. But today our families are often separated not just by an ocean but the Travel Ban and other short-sighted visitation policies that inflict unjustified suffering on American citizens. These policies undercut a core American value – strong families – and ignore the economic benefits and national interests that temporary family visits would foster.
I, like many Iranians, fled the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Sensing rising tensions and wanting the best for me, my parents sent me to live with family in France. I eventually left Europe to attend college in the U.S. and made this country my home. While my parents were fortunate enough to join me, we left behind many relatives and friends in Iran.
My story is not unique. Countless Iranian Americans – the majority of whom are between the ages of 25 to 64 – are proud Americans but remain deeply connected to family back in Iran. According to a 2018 survey of Iranian Americans conducted by the Public Affairs Alliance for Iranian Americans (PAAIA), 90 percent of respondents have family in Iran. Although our community has kept a close connection with our ancestral land, we all suffer from current immigration law which lacks a direct path for our relatives to temporarily visit for births, funerals, weddings, graduations and holidays like Nowruz.
Family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents can apply to visit their relatives through B-2 visas under the Immigration and Nationality Act – a status not even open to Iranian Americans because of the Travel Ban. B-2 visitor visas lack consideration for family reunion, resulting in an unnecessarily high denial rate because its presumed that applicants with family members in the U.S. intend to immigrate. Not only is this presumption false but it pushes many to apply for immigrant visas as the only path to visit their U.S. relatives. A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that 20 percent of non-immigrant visa applications are denied due to presumption of immigration – a reality that our community has lived with and suffered from for decades.
Every day I am flooded with concerns and requests for information about family reunification. The toll of the Travel Ban and travel barriers on our community is both devastating and discriminatory especially given that Iranian Americans are among some of the most successful immigrant communities in the U.S. – serving in law enforcement, the military and elected office. In fact, this year we proudly observed the election of three Iranian American women to state legislatures. Iranian Americans are highly-educated, founders and/or senior leaders at many major U.S. companies and give back to the communities in which they live. A study by the Small Business Administration (SBA) found Iranian immigrants to be among the top 20 immigrant groups with the highest rate of business ownership, contributing substantially to the US economy.
Disconnecting Iranian Americans from family overseas undermines the contributions that this population has made to U.S. industry, education and communities. Repealing the Travel Ban and amending the Immigration and Nationality Act to establish a path for family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to temporarily visit would facilitate family reunions, reduce the difficulties families face in visiting one another and help ensure visits would be temporary and enforceable.
As a young girl growing up in Iran, my family would gather around the traditional Haft-seen table to await the exact moment of the vernal equinox – the start of Nowruz. Wearing a new spring dress, I could hear cannons sound and eagerly awaited the visits we would have with relatives, neighbors and friends in the days and weeks to come.
During Nowruz, a time that embodies family, tradition and compassion for all human beings, let us seek common-sense family visitation and travel policies that reunite loved ones and make our country stronger.
Dr. Leila Golestaneh Austin is the executive director of PAAIA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization serving the interests of the Iranian Americans community.