Elham serves as NIAC's National Outreach Director, overseeing the organization's grassroots and field operations. Prior to NIAC, Elham served as a research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at the Capitol Hill news organization CQ Roll Call. She has also worked for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating for government transparency, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and CNN. Elham earned her Masters in Global Communication from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her BA in political science and writing. Elham was born in San Francisco, CA and raised in Pittsburgh, PA.
I was lucky.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Iran before I was born. They settled in Pittsburgh and built the humble beginnings of a successful life for themselves and their children. I was born as the first American in my family. I grew up oblivious to the sacrifices my parents had made for me and my siblings, to the unlimited opportunities at my feet. I took for granted the reality that I could be anything I wanted to be.
It could have been different. And, maybe, it already is.
Last week, in a swift move that flew under the radar of many civil liberties and activist groups, the House passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. Aimed at reforming the Visa Waiver Program, the measure received bipartisan support for tightening travel restrictions between the 38 European and Asian countries that are part of the program.
In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, Republicans had fast-tracked the bill to the floor for a vote. In the process, they managed to insert into the legislation discriminatory language against dual nationals of Iraq, Syria and official state sponsors of terror — Iran and Sudan. The legislation has since been lumped into Congress’ annual omnibus appropriations bill and is expected to come to the Senate floor for a vote as early as Saturday.
As it stands, the Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of the 38 member countries to travel to countries in Europe or Asia, as well as the United States, without a visa. But this bill would require dual citizens from Iran, Syria, Iraq and Sudan, as well as individuals who have traveled to those countries in the past five years, to obtain visas. And because the VWP is a reciprocal program, the 38 member countries can choose to invoke the same restrictions on American citizens.
To put it into perspective, this means that world-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain could be forced to obtain a visa to go almost anywhere simply because he filmed a documentary in Iran a few years ago. So could Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, who has traveled to Iran and Syria. It would hamper the travel of countless journalists and human rights workers who have traveled to war zones to report from the front lines or to aid civilians. And because Iran considers anyone with an Iranian-born father to be a citizen, I and countless other Iranian-Americans (including those who have never set foot inside Iran) would be required to obtain a visa if we wanted to visit Europe or Asia.
For the past two weeks, the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization, for which I work, has fought hard against this legislation. Throughout our efforts, I’ve heard numerous people asking why this is such a big deal. Why not just put up with the restrictions and obtain a visa? Why not sacrifice a few civil liberties to help strengthen national security?
For one thing, it won’t work. The San Bernardino husband and wife attackers, for instance, were of Pakistani descent. The wife was influenced by the ultra-conservative Wahhabist school of Islam while living in Saudi Arabia. Neither Pakistan nor Saudia Arabia are included in the bill’s list of targeted countries. This is not to say that these countries should be included in the bill, but rather that efforts to combat terrorism based on people’s ethnicities, instead of their behavior, is fruitless.
Secondly, this bill sets a dangerous precedent by discriminating against law-abiding European and American citizens merely because of their backgrounds. It tells people like me that my Iranian heritage makes me a second-class citizen, that I am more suspicious than the average American because I hold two passports. In other words, as Donald Trump casually calls for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and argues that Muslim-Americans should wear ID badges, this bill would essentially codify his hateful rhetoric into law.
In times of war, it’s easy to let racism reign. And so, our lawmakers have taken the impulsive and reckless route, as if it will quell the current fearful environment. What they fail to understand is that their policies do not make us safer — they isolate us and push us further apart.
Iranian American Groups Release Joint Statement Calling for Full Investigation Into Murder of College Student Falsely Accused of Being a Terrorist
NIAC Contact: Elham Khatami
Phone: (202) 386-6325
A coalition of Iranian-American organizations, including Iranian Alliances Across Borders, Iranian American Bar Association, the National Iranian American Council, PARS Equality Center, and the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, released the following statement calling for a full investigation into the brutal murder of 22-year-old Iranian-American student Shayan Mazroei by avowed white supremacist, Craig Tanber, 37, last month. Mazroei was stabbed to death after Tanber’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Thornburg, accused him of being a terrorist:
“A 22-year-old Iranian-American, Shayan Mazroei, was stabbed to death by a member of an Orange County white supremacist gang, “PEN1,” over the Labor Day holiday weekend last month. Shayan was a student at Saddleback College, where he was studying mechanical engineering, and had just opened his own business. He was also his parent’s only child.
“According to eyewitness accounts, the sequence of events leading to the fatal stabbing of Shayan began when Craig Tanber’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Thornburg, noticed a tattoo on Shayan’s forearm, which read ‘love’ in Persian script. Thornburg associated Shayan’s tattoo to the Arabic script often used in ISIS videos and imagery, and called him a “terrorist.” Several witnesses recall Thornburg instigating a confrontation between Tanber and Shayan, and heard her yelling racial insults at him. Witnesses also saw Thornburg spitting in Shayan’s face before he was stabbed to death by Tanber. Yet, Elizabeth Thornburg remains free and has not been charged in connection with the murder of Shayan Mazroei.
“At the time of the murder, 37-year-old Craig Tanber was out on parole stemming from the 2004 killing of Cory Lamons in Huntington Beach. Tanber pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, dissuading a witness by force, street terrorism, and assault with a deadly weapon. The sentence was enhanced after he admitted that the killing was carried out to benefit a street gang. Tanber also has prior convictions for a 2001 residential burglary.
“Shayan’s murder was very likely motivated by Islamophobia and a fundamental misunderstanding of his tattoo. Shayan was clearly targeted and killed because of his race, religion, and national origin. Such senseless acts of hate have no room in the United States of America. We call on Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin to immediately open an investigation into Thornburg’s involvement in Shayan’s murder and bring the appropriate criminal charges against her. In addition, we urge the Department of Justice to further investigate this senseless killing and highly recommend charging both Tanber and Thornburg under federal hate crime statutes.”