Two years have passed since President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but unless you have good reason to be tuned into the discourse surrounding the ban — say it personally affects your family and friends — you might have missed its anniversary late last month.
Newsha Tavakoli should be so lucky.
For two years, Tavakoli, a 28-year-old software engineer who moved here with her family from Iran in 2011, has struggled to make peace with the president’s policy, but she can’t.
Doing so would mean denying who she is — an Iranian who practices the Muslim faith. It would also mean giving up on the dream she has held since May 25, 2016, the day she married Mohamad Esnaashari, the love of her life.
“I thought for sure we’d be together by now, but no,” she said. “Everything I planned for my future is ruined.”
Tavakoli believes the ban discriminates against Muslims and is literally tearing families apart. It’s hard to argue with that.
Beginning with his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had repeatedly vowed to ban Muslims. In defending the policy, Trump has cited national security concerns and the need to make sure that people entering the U.S. are properly vetted.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, pretty much agreed with Tavakoli a year ago when it concluded, after examining statements made by the president, other administration officials and the ban, that it was “unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam” and “denies the possibility of a complete, intact family to tens of thousands of Americans.”
We learned in June 2018 that the Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the ban in a 5-4 decision, ruling the statements did not constitute evidence of religious discrimination.
A lot of people still aren’t buying that and are continuing the fight to end the ban, which limits granting visas to travelers from the Muslim-majority nations of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Iran, where Tavakoli’s husband remains in limbo.
The difference now is the fight has shifted from the court to Congress, said Ryan Costello, policy director of the nonprofit National Iranian American Council.
“The last Congress played defense and didn’t take up any bills to rescind or challenge it,” Costello said. “This new Congress will be different. To date, 102 members of Congress are in support of new legislation to end the ban and block any money from being used to implement it.”
Chances the bills — H.R. 810 from Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and S. 246 from Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Ct. — will pass look good, he said, but Costello is worried they might not overcome a presidential veto.
When it first came down, Costello said the ban’s impact was hard to miss.
“People were being detained and deported overnight,” he said. “It was a real shock for people to see their friends and families caught in the middle and the first signal for a lot of people that Trump meant what he said on the campaign trail. We’ve seen since then, that it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind for the average American.”
For the average Iranian-American like Tavakoli, however, the effect isn’t much different from what’s happening on our southern border where immigrant families are being ripped apart.
When her family settled in Marietta in 2011, Tavakoli had every reason to believe she’d finish school and, like her older sisters, one day marry and start a family here.
She met Esnaashari during a Christmas visit to Iran in 2015, shortly before earning a bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech. The two were married after a short online courtship in 2016.
When she returned three weeks later, Tavakoli, who became a U.S. citizen in 2017, immediately applied for a green card for her husband.
“There was no travel ban at that moment, so we were sure he’d come,” she said recently.
Less than a year after they were married, President Trump signed an executive order that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the country for 90 days, suspended entry to the country of all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and prohibited any other refugees from coming into the country for 120 days.
“Those were really bad days,” Tavakoli said. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
She constantly mined the internet, reading stories about the ban and what was happening at airports across the country. As the emotional toll on her increased, she struggled to meet her job responsibilities. Her boss let her go, saying she hadn’t grown as fast as he’d expected.
Tavakoli, after a two-month stay in Iran to celebrate her marriage, returned home to continue the fight for her husband’s green card.
The way she understood things, no Iranians would be allowed in the country without having first undergone a review to determine whether they were eligible for a waiver. To qualify, applicants must meet three criteria: It’s in the “national interest” of the United States to let them in; they don’t pose a public safety or security risk; they’d suffer “undue hardship” if they were denied a visa under the ban.
“That gave me hope, but even that has not been the case,” Tavakoli said. “I haven’t met anyone who has gotten a waiver.”
And that, she said, leaves her with just one option — to leave the country that held so much promise for her and any children she might have in the future.
However, not even leaving would solve all her problems. For one thing, it would be next to impossible to find similar employment. (She’s a software engineer at Home Depot.) And because of sanctions imposed by the United States, Iran’s economy is so bad, she doubts she’d make enough to pay off her student loans.
“If you convert Iran currency to U.S. dollars, the amount I’d have to pay monthly on my student loan would be my entire monthly salary,” she said. “It’s not doable.”
Tavakoli said the plan was for her husband to come here and for the two of them to stay with her parents until he found a job.
“The plan was for us all to be together,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
If you’ve been paying attention, it’s a familiar story — married couples being ripped apart, having to postpone financial decisions like buying a house, and trying to decide whether to abandon their dream or the person they pledged to love for life.
And it’s not just this, Costello said. Grandparents can’t come meet the newest members of their families. Students can’t get visas to continue their education.
It’s a hard truth especially given the fact that when Iranians arrive here, they become productive citizens of our society. They get advanced degrees, Costello said. They head major companies like Uber. They contribute mightily to the U.S. economy.
Before the ban went into effect in 2017, he said, about 40,000 visas were issued to Iranians each year. That number has declined to as few as 8,000 this year.
Costello now wonders if Congress has the political will to end the policy.
Tavakoli can think of little else.
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