Iranian Students in U.S. Organize to Turn Visa Nightmare into Dream Come True
Powered by Skype and other tools, Iranian students from across the U.S. created a new group, MEVISA, dedicated to changing the single-entry visa policy.
For Ali Moslemi and other Iranian students, the single-entry visa policy was a nightmare. The policy required them to go through the expensive and often excruciatingly slow process of getting a new visa and undergoing yet another background check if they ever left the country. Fear of losing fellowships, missing entire semesters, or even not being able to finish their studies prevented many students from ever returning home to see their loved ones.
“After four years, I decided to visit my family in Iran and got stuck because of the long administrative processing of my re-entry visa,” said Moslemi, who described the nine month wait and error-filled process of getting a new visa as a bureaucratic nightmare.
“I said to myself, I can either get frustrated and count days and weeks waiting or actively become part of a process that changes this unfair policy,” Moslemi continued. “I chose the second way and searched about ways to work on this problem.”
Another student activist, Naemeh Esfahani, says she was inspired to change the visa policy by the election of President Barack Obama and three words: “yes we can.” “I started to rethink the status quo,” she said. “Just because single-entry visa policy was there for more years than I can remember, it did not have to be there forever.”
Other students felt the same way and began to link up through a Facebook cause focused on the issue. Powered by Skype and other tools, the students quickly created a new group – MEVISA – dedicated to changing the single-entry visa policy.
After hearing complaints about the policy from students and members alike, NIAC had also begun investigating ways to change the policy and quietly reaching out to the Department of State. Both efforts came to fruition at about the same time in early 2009, with MEVISA setting up chapters on campuses across the country and NIAC making its first public call for the Obama administration to allow Iranian students to receive multiple-entry visas.
NIAC and MEVISA quickly began coordinating their efforts. “As more people started to look into this issue we got more and more confident,” Esfahani said. Moslemi said he also became more hopeful about their prospects because of “the good teamwork between MEVISA and NIAC.”
Other members of MEVISA shared the optimism. “Of course we knew it would be difficult, because of the political tensions between Iran and the U.S., but we had the feeling that it would be doable,” said Amin Sarafraz, an Executive Board member of MEVISA.
While NIAC worked with Congress and the State Department, and organized grassroots letter writing campaigns to President Obama and Secretary Clinton, MEVISA focused on organizing their campuses.
Having no voting rights themselves, the Iranian students first reached out and won the support of other student advocacy groups like Student Advocacy for Graduate Education and the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. Next, the students turned their attention to getting their universities to endorse their cause.
“We thought if universities - which are an important part of U.S. society - support us, officials in the Department of State eventually will listen to us,” explained Moslemi.
And so, campus by campus, MEVISA chapters lobbied their universities, collecting support letters to the Department of State from 22 schools.
But the change would not come easily. In fact, only the White House had the power to order the change. But as NIAC worked with the students and the Iranian American community to send almost 10,000 letters to the White House, pressure to change the policy built up. NIAC also worked with officials from the White House, State Department and key Members of Congress to build support for changing the policy on Capitol Hill.
That support proved critical more than a year later, when officials raised the issue with the White House and urged the policy to be changed.
“I’ve heard from many Iranian students and Iranian Americans that you wanted this change,” Secretary Clinton said as she announced the visa change in a video posted on Youtube. The video raced across the Internet. “On social media, including Facebook and Twitter, Secretary Clinton’s video clip was the main news clip circulating over the night,” said Esfahani.
“I was in a state of disbelief initially!” said Esfahani. “It was a dream-come-true moment for me and for many others waiting to see this happen.”
Inspired by the change in visa policy, Moslemi, Sarafraz, and Esfahani all said they would continue to advocate for the issues that are important to the Iranian student and Iranian-American communities. And NIAC will continue to work with MEVISA to ensure that policymakers continue to hear from Iranian students so that the new visa policy will be implemented as effectively and fairly as possible.