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Iranian Students in US Mobilize to Change Single-Entry Visa Law

by MICHELLE MOGHTADER in New York

02 Mar 2011 03:57Comments
CBD243CB-4326-449B-B866-7159FB35C52A_mw800_mh600_s.jpgVirtually trapped in country for entire schooling, they take the issue to Congress.

[ dispatch ] Nasim Sabounchi was ecstatic when she received her acceptance letter to Virginia Tech's Ph.D. program in 2007. The 21-year-old's excitement soon turned to worry as she thought of how she would be far away from all she knew for the duration of her studies. "I really had to ask myself, 'Is this something I want to do?' I had the funding, I'd been accepted, but in a way, I felt like I was coming to prison for five years."

Like the many Iranians who come to the United States to further their studies, Nasim knew she would receive a single-entry visa. If she left the country, she would have to apply for a visa again. This process is unpredictable at best -- it can require a week or up to three months, a risk most students are unwilling to take. As a result, most Iranian students who come to the United States accept the fact that they will not be able to go home during the entire length of their studies.

With the support of her friends and family, Nasim decided to attend Virginia Tech and is now in her fourth year of studies. "I know so many people who weren't able to see their mothers and fathers before they died because of this policy and I just keep thinking to myself, 'God, I hope this doesn't happen to me.' Sometimes, you just want your family right next to you."

Nasim is one of the Iranian students studying in the United States who have taken matters into their own hands. Perhaps becoming more American than she anticipated, with several other students she organized a group calling for a change in the policy that received a statement of support from Virginia Tech's graduate school. Not knowing how to take the issue further than their school, they turned to the D.C.-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

NIAC advocates for Iranian Americans on Capitol Hill. Among its various activities, the group conducts civic participation workshops tailored for the Iranian-American community. "Since our civic participation workshop with NIAC, we've developed a lot," said Nasim. The students tried to contact their congressman, Rick Boucher, numerous times and frequently attended his town hall meetings. However, he never answered their calls. Like many other Democrats, Boucher lost his bid for reelection last year and the group is now trying to contact their new, Republican representative, Morgan Griffith.

With the backing of students like Nasim and her 3,650 fellow members in the Multiple Entry US Visa for Iranian Students (MEVISA) Facebook group, NIAC lobbied Congress to change the law. (MEVISA also has its own website.) Jamal Abdi, NIAC policy director, said they worked with the Senate Armed Services Committee in an attempt to insert language into the defense authorization bill that would have "required the White House to evaluate and report how the U.S. can increase educational exchanges with Iranian students and expand the number and types of visas available for Iranians to study in the U.S."

In the midst of an end-of-term legislative frenzy that included the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the failure to pass the Dream Act, the proposed section of the defense bill, titled "Iran Engagement Report," did not receive enough backing. "The supporters who were in the Armed Services Committee said that they ran out of time," said Abdi. Another plausible reason for its failure is simply pure politics. "Nothing is going to come out of Congress," admits Abdi. "So we are looking to the administration to ease some of the burdens."

Since 1984, Iran has been on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list, along with Cuba, Sudan, and Syria. As a result, the visa process is particularly difficult for citizens from these countries. Sudanese and Syrian applicants are eligible for multiple-entry visas, however, while Iranians and Cubans are eligible only for single-entry. According to the State Department website, "Current visa validities are based on reciprocity for Americans traveling to an applicant's home country (example: an Iranian's visa validity to the U.S. is 3 months just as an American traveling to Iran's visa validity is 3 months)."

State Department officials cite the principle of reciprocity in explanation of why they cannot change the visa law for Iranian students. However, according to Abdi, the United States gives far more visas to Iranian students than vice versa. "It's clear that the president understands and realizes the importance to have young Iranians come to the U.S., but the policy hasn't gone the entire way."

During his March 2010 address to the Iranian people for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Barack Obama said, "We will sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people. For instance, by increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities."

The president's words, however, have not been followed by concrete actions that would make it easier for Iranians studying in America. Students say they still feel like they are caught in the crossfire between the two governments. "If President Obama knows that the Iranian people are different than the government, then why don't the laws reflect that?" said Ali Masoud, a first-year student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

The issue has died down for the time being, as the group has faced its first setback with December's legislative defeat. It also confronts the high turnover rate of active members that is characteristic of groups calling for changes in immigration or visa laws. Organizers find that many immigrants lose interest as soon as they receive their green cards. But it is clear as well that there will continue to be waves of Iranian students coming to the United States ready to carry on the group's work.

"It's the fact that you can't go back that makes you want to go back even more," said Roozbeh Esfahani, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in Iranian studies at Columbia who has just recently joined the Facebook group.

"Perhaps I don't have access to all of the information, but I've never heard of an Iranian student coming here and then becoming a terrorist," he said in exasperation.

Editor's note: The article has been corrected to state that Sudanese and Syrian applicants are eligible, unlike Iranians, for multiple-entry visas to the United States.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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