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Moving toward second-class citizenship with Congress’ visa-waiver legislation

It is possible that second-class citizenship for my loved ones and me will be the very last thing that Congress votes on in 2015. On Dec. 8, with support from the Obama administration, the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015” was overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives. The Senate version now awaits a vote.

Roozbeh Shirazi

The existing Visa Waiver Program currently allows citizens of 38 countries — in Europe, Japan, and South Korea — to travel to the United States without a visa. In turn, U.S. citizens are allowed the same privilege when traveling to those states. The proposed changes would exempt citizens of these countries who have traveled to Iraq and Syria since 2011 from the Visa Waiver Program. They would also exempt citizens of these countries with dual nationality from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria from the program, and would require them to apply for a visa in order to travel to the United States. In turn, the EU has expressed willingness to exempt U.S. citizens with dual nationality from visa waivers as well. In essence, the new visa waiver law puts such individuals in a different category from any other U.S. citizen with respect to travel.

How the law constructs “dual nationals” is of central importance here. The Immigration and Naturalization Act defines the concept of dual nationality to mean “a person is a national of two countries at the same time. Each country has its own nationality laws based on its own policy. Persons may have dual nationality by automatic operation of different laws rather than by choice. “

Enormous consequences

As a U.S.-born citizen of Iranian ancestry, I am a target of this legislation, as are my family and many of our friends. This bill will have enormous consequences on my professional and personal life. Although I do not hold an Iranian passport and have never been to Iran, under Iranian law I would be considered to be an Iranian national, as citizenship in Iran is conferred through patrilineal descent. If an expansive reading of the visa waiver exemptions is applied, my ability to carry out my international scholarship as a professor at the University of Minnesota will be restricted. On a personal level, if these changes become law, it won’t matter that my parents, naturalized U.S. citizens who came to the United States from Iran four decades ago, would not be able to visit their EU passport-holding siblings in Europe without a visa. It won’t matter that my wife, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen living here since age 2, wouldn’t be able to travel back to France, where she lived and studied for years, without a visa.

Beyond these restrictions, this bill comes with an enormous emotional toll. Our sense of belonging as Americans, a topic that I have devoted much of my research toward, is at stake. Three generations of my family’s lives, memories and relationships are inextricably tied to this land. For many Iraqi- and Syrian-Americans, this history is much longer. We have buried our elders here, and have welcomed new additions to our families as well. These are among the rituals that make a place home. How are we expected to feel a connection to a country that formalizes a lower tier of citizenship for us? How are my wife and I supposed to raise our 2-year-old son to exercise his rights as a citizen of this country when those rights are marked with an asterisk?

Fear supplants facts and empathy

Without serious engagement with such questions, changing the Visa Waiver Program is an expedient way to avoid difficult conversations about the failings of U.S. foreign policy and the brazen Islamophobia of our political discourse. Together, they have created a climate in which fear has supplanted facts and empathy. Here are some of those facts, lest they be lost in the calls to “ban all Muslims,” and “carpet bomb ISIS until we know sand can glow in the dark:” 

  • Refugees fleeing Syria are not responsible for the violence ISIS perpetuates.
  • These states are ethnically and religiously diverse; ISIS sees those who do not follow its Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as apostates to be wiped out.
  • ISIS, along with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, receive private funding from Saudi and Gulf State donors (though nationals of these countries are not targeted by the proposed legislation).

These are real geopolitical considerations, and yet they have been obliterated in the knee-jerk rush to “do something” about terrorism. Yes, our lawmakers are quick to do something, anything, so long as they aren’t put on the spot about Saudi influence on our economy, or forced to confront the epidemic of domestic gun violence that falls into the “offer prayers and do nothing” category of terrorism every time it happens.

Contact Minnesota senators

It does not have to be this way. I have called Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar to voice my opposition to this bill. I ask you to call as well. We are being asked to collectively take the blame, along with our Syrian-, Iraqi-, and Sudanese-American brothers and sisters, for the blind spots of our politicians. Just as Japanese-Americans were forced to do so during World War II, we are being asked to assume the burden for our neighbors’ unchecked sense of vulnerability, and for the costly missteps of the U.S. in the Middle East.

Without the support of our fellow Americans, history will be repeated in the name of “national security.” I do not make these points in the hope of convincing you that I should be exempt because I’m “one of the good ones.” I make them to show how this bill has the potential to arbitrarily affect your friends, neighbors and community members. When a xenophobic response is the answer to a complex problem long in the making, ordinary people will suffer.

Roozbeh Shirazi is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

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