Sanctions Bar Educational Platform from Servicing Iranians

A nonprofit online education platform, edX, cited a delay in obtaining a U.S. government license as the basis for a recent suspension of services that inadvertently affected Iranian Americans. After sending an open letter to the company, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has been working with edX to resolve complications arising from the suspension.

According to a response from edX, its specific license from the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for Iran expired prior to being granted a renewal. U.S. sanctions targeting Iran prohibit U.S. companies, such as edX, from exporting services to Iran, including educational services to Iranian nationals located in Iran, which impacted the availability of some edX courses. In order to comply with U.S. sanctions absent a specific license for work involving Iran, across a learner base of over 17 million users, edX identified individuals who could be resident in Iran based on self-identified country residence and IP address and barred them from coursework.

This appears to have included at least some individuals who are not currently resident in Iran (but whose last activity on edX indicated an Iran IP address), including at least one U.S. citizen based outside Iran. However, NIAC has found no evidence of discriminatory intent by edX, and NIAC staff has been assured by edX that it is willing to work to resolve any remaining complications for individuals who should be legally permitted to access edX’s online coursework. If you or a friend believe that they have been erroneously barred from edX coursework, please do not hesitate to contact either NIAC staff (info@niacouncil.org) or edX Support (info@edx.org).

NIAC notes that the availability of coursework to Iranian nationals, regardless of their country of residence, ultimately serves U.S. interests by building bridges to and empowering the Iranian people. Unfortunately, by failing to issue broad enough general licenses to permit edX and similar educational platforms to make its coursework available to Iranians, OFAC has once again ensured that sanctions harm the Iranian people but not the regime. We encourage OFAC to issue necessary licenses for platforms like edX and to carve out broad exemptions to enable Iranian nationals the ability to access educational and communications tools.

EdX Response to NIAC

NIAC Sends Letter to Corporations Lobbying for H.R. 392

Today, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued an open letter directed at corporations that have lobbied on behalf of H.R. 392, including Microsoft, Amazon, Texas Instruments, IBM, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. H.R. 392, also known as the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017, would remove a fundamental pillar of our immigration system and risk creating a monopoly over the green card process for nationals from one or two large countries. However unintentionally, support for H.R. 392 would also exacerbate the impact of the Muslim Ban for Iranians who can neither leave the country nor receive visits from family, and thereby help advance Donald Trump’s stated goal of a “shutdown” for Muslims entering the United States.

NIAC received concerns from many of our members following the bill’s inclusion in the House Homeland Security appropriation bill. However, it remains unclear whether the provision will ultimately pass into law.

NIAC’s letter below urges these corporations to reconsider their support for legislation that would, if passed, hurt many of their own employees already targeted by unfair immigration policies:

An Open Letter to the Corporations Supporting H

NIAC Concerned by edX Move to Bar Iranians from Coursework

 

UPDATE: edX responded to NIAC’s letter, citing a delay in obtaining a U.S. government license as the basis for a recent suspension of services that inadvertently affected Iranian Americans. See more here.

In response to messages received from its members, NIAC sent a letter today to edX, an online educational platform founded by Harvard University and MIT, expressing concern regarding its decision to terminate or reject the participation of students with Iranian background from its online coursework in an apparent attempt to comply with U.S. sanctions.

The decision has not just impacted individuals from Iran, but also Iranian Americans, in what appears to be an over-enforcement of U.S. sanctions with discriminatory impact on those with Iranian heritage. Given reports it appears that at least one Iranian American has been impacted by this policy. As a result, we are seeking information on  edX’s criteria for determining where specific students are based, Iran or otherwise. We strongly urge that edX alters its policies immediately to ensure that they are not over-enforcing sanctions or discriminating based on nationality and NIAC stands ready to assist edX in making that happen.

edX is one more example of the many companies that have or may go beyond standard sanctions compliance, especially as the first wave of pre-Iran deal sanctions are reimplemented. Many individuals of Iranian descent have been impacted by banks closing their accounts with little to no advance notice out of misguided fears that these individuals would seek to access their banking accounts while in Iran in violation of sanctions. Similarly, edX’s broad approach to compliance creates an environment conducive to discriminatory protocols and criteria, significantly impacting the every-day life Iranian Americans living in the U.S. Unintended, negative impacts of sanctions will remain a pervasive threat to Iranians and the Iranian-American community until the day that they are lifted.

Please see the letter below:

edX Letter (2)

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Experts Available to Discuss Trump’s Muslim Ban

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Jamal Abdi, Vice President of Policy – 202.386.6408, jabdi@niacouncil.org

Trita Parsi, President – 202.386.6325, tparsi@niacouncil.org

Mahsa Payesteh, Outreach Director – 214.236.4440, mpayesteh@niacouncil.org

Ryan Costello, Assistant Policy Director – 703.963.1901, rcostello@niacouncil.org

Adam Weinstein, Policy Associate – 202.386.6319, aweinstein@niacouncil.org

Experts from the National Iranian American Council are available to discuss the Supreme Court’s outrageous decision to uphold Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and the necessity for Congress to take action to end the ban once and for all.

Iranians and their Iranian-American families in the U.S. have been the group most impacted by the ban. Families have been ripped apart with no end in sight and students have been unable to pursue their dreams. The Iranian-American community has been praised by the Trump White House as one of the most successful immigrant communities in the United States, yet will be barred on a permanent basis because of Trump’s ban and the Supreme Court’s morally hollow decision.

The following experts are available to discuss this dark day for American justice:

Jamal Abdi is Vice President for Policy for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Executive Director of NIAC Action. He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education on civil rights and immigration issues, as well as diplomacy with Iran. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, and BBC News. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi

Trita Parsi, is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on civil rights and US-Iranian relations. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press 2012).

Parsi’s articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Nation,The American Conservative, the Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

Mahsa Payesteh joined the National Iranian American Council as a Community Outreach Associate in January 2015 and works to empower and organize Iranian Americans to have a strong voice on the political issues that matter most to them.

Mahsa studied Psychology at The University of Texas at Dallas. She formerly worked as a Physical Therapy Assistant in Dallas, TX. Mahsa served as a volunteer NIAC Ambassador in Dallas for two years. She has always felt a strong connection to her Iranian heritage and has had a special interest in issues affecting the Iranian people. Following her experience volunteering at the 2014 Leadership Conference, Mahsa consequently decided to pursue a more active and permanent role with NIAC.

Ryan Costello joined NIAC in April 2013 as a Policy Fellow and now serves as Assistant Policy Director. In this role, Ryan monitors legislation, conducts research and writing, and coordinates advocacy efforts on civil rights and U.S.-Iran policy.

Ryan previously served as a Program Associate at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he focused on nuclear non-proliferation policy. He has published in American Foreign Policy Interests, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, CNN GPS, Foreign Policy, The Hill, Huffington Post and Roll Call. Ryan graduated from American University’s School of International Service with a Master of Arts in U.S. Foreign Policy, and from Ursinus College where he majored in history and international relations. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RN_Costello

Adam Weinstein joined the National Iranian American Council as a Policy Associate in April 2017. In this role, Adam monitors legislation, policy briefs, and legal cases, conducts research and writing, and supports advocacy efforts. He focuses on national security, diplomacy, immigration and civil rights issues.

Adam served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was deployed to Afghanistan. He received his J.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he focused on international law, national security law, and immigration law. He graduated from the University of Miami with a B.A. in International Relations.

Adam has written for Foreign Policy, CNN, The Diplomat, Newsweek, Haaretz, the Atlantic Council’s Iran Insight, the London School of Economics Middle East Centre and South Asia Centre, and the Huffington Post.

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About NIAC: The National Iranian American Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people. We accomplish our mission through expert research and analysis, civic and policy education, and community building.

Nike Petition Update: Demanding Accountability from Nike

An update on our petition , “Tell Nike Not to Politicize the World Cup,” in regards to Nike’s refusal to provide cleats to the Iranian World Cup Team:

We are all proud of how Team Melli played in the World Cup, but we are also so proud of how this community was able to come together to support the Iranian national soccer team. With every new petition signature, we show Nike that Iranian-Americans are willing to unite in the face of discrimination against our people and community.

Though our petition has not received a response yet, we wanted to let you know that we are putting additional pressure on Nike. We have sent their CEO, Mark Parker, a letter detailing our concerns and asking for answers. You can find an excerpt of the letter below.

Over the past eighteen months, our community has been living under a Muslim Travel Ban that prevents our families from visiting us in the United States. With the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, we collectively worry about the prospect of a war with Iran. The World Cup is a rare chance to put aside the many political challenges of the moment and to celebrate what unites us – sport. This is a principle that so many of us have viewed as a core element of Nike’s brand and mission. I hope you understand how disappointing your decision is for our community, but, in the spirit of transcending what divides us and instead celebrating what unites us, we would like to request a meeting to discuss this issue further and help broker a resolution or understanding.

Nike’s statement to the press explained that “sanctions mean that, as a U.S. company, we cannot provide shoes to players in the Iran national team at this time.” However, many in the Iranian-American community believe that Nike made a political decision rather than one rooted simply in legal obligation. We fully understand that corporations are placed in the tenuous position of navigating a labyrinth of U.S. sanctions laws. However, like most of the Iranian-American community, we too do not understand Nike’s legal rationale in this particular situation.

We would be interested to learn in more detail why Nike made this decision so that we can communicate it to our community and, as appropriate, conduct our own outreach with U.S. government agencies to address this challenge and prevent similar issues from arising in the future.

Please continue sharing the petition with your family and friends.

If you’re interested in getting involved with any of the groups sponsoring this petition, please click the links below:

Aftab Committee
Iranian Alliances Across Borders
Iranian-American Bar Association
National Iranian American Council
United For Iran

NIAC Strongly Condemns the Iranian Judiciary’s Detention of Nasrin Sotoudeh

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi
Phone: 202-386-6325
Email: tparsi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding Nasrin Sotoudeh’s unjust arrest and detention in Evin Prison:

“NIAC strongly condemns the Iranian judiciary’s detention of Sotoudeh and calls for the immediate release of her and all prisoners of conscience. Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyer, has been arrested at her home and transferred to Evin Prison earlier today. Sotoudeh has dedicated her life to human rights and faced unjust imprisonment in the past. In 2012, after three years of confinement she went on multiple hunger strikes and her weight was reduced to 95 pounds. That same year she received the European Union’s highest human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Following her release, Sotoudeh was barred from the practice of law for three years but it was reduced to nine months.

“Most recently Sotoudeh has represented several young women who have been arrested for removing their hijabs as a form of protest in public. Her current arrest comes without a formal charge and was first reported on her husband’s Facebook page but later confirmed by the New York Times and BBC Persian. Iran’s Judiciary continues to terrorize its citizens with fabricated charges, zero due process, and inhumane prison conditions. Sotoudeh has devoted her life to defending the human dignity of her clients and now finds herself torn from her family and imprisoned. This is absolutely unacceptable and it is incumbent on Iran’s highest authorities to facilitate her release immediately.

“Many have feared there would be a worsening human rights situation and an emboldening of hardline elements in Iran with the heightening of tensions with the United States. Indeed, we have seen this pattern in the past and are concerned that Sotoudeh’s arrest is evidence this trend is repeating. Lost in much of the discourse over the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and announcement of new sanctions and escalatory measures has been the impact these external actions may have on the political dynamics inside of Iran. The blame of course lies with those actors inside Iran who are seizing on this opportunity to advance an agenda that is anathema to Iran’s human rights obligations and to the wishes of the Iranian people. At the same time, the U.S. must carefully consider how our actions create opportunities for such elements and reduce our ability, as well as the international community’s ability, to hold Iran accountable to its human rights obligations.”

Pompeo Pressed on Iran before Senate Committee

“The Saudis and their allies, the Gulf Sheikdoms, spend eight times more (militarily) than Iran,” noted Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday. “So when you tell Iran, you have to give up your ballistic missile program but you don’t say anything to the Saudis, you think they’re ever going to sign that?”

Sen. Paul was questioning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the Trump Administration’s twelve demands of Iran, which many interpreted as a fanciful wish list rather than the comprehensive strategy the administration billed it as. Paul noted the hypocrisy of the demands as the U.S. was not asking any of its own partners in the region to sign up for them. Regarding Pompeo’s demand that Iran reveal the military dimensions of its nuclear program, Paul said “Let’s substitute Israel for Iran there. Does anybody think that Israel’s going to reveal the military dimensions of their nuclear program?”

Regarding the demand for Iran to withdraw all its forces from Syria, Paul asserted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded ISIS and stated, “So if you want Iran to stop — I mean Saudi Arabia and Qatar are 10 times the problem, you know, the whole Syrian war has all of these radical jihadists, the people who attacked us came from Saudi Arabia.”

Pompeo was also pressed on the administration’s rhetorical support for the Iranian people who are still subject to Trump’s Muslim ban.

“One of the lines of effort you mentioned included supporting the Iranian people, which I was intrigued by,” noted Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. “Are you advocating that President Trump remove Iran from the list of countries whose citizens can’t come to the United States through the travel ban? And help me with whether the Trump administration visa policy is consistent with outreach to the Iranian people?”

Pompeo did not answer directly, indicating that “there are many pieces of this that I will concede we still have work to do to figure out.” However, Pompeo asserted that the Iranian people, who the Secretary helps ensure can’t obtain a visa under the ban, “won’t be on their own.” Yet, until the administration rescinds the ban, its rhetorical support for the Iranian people will ring utterly hollow.

Pompeo was also pressed by Senator Udall and others on the committee regarding his views of the administration’s war power authorities on Iran. In response to Sen. Udall’s question on whether the President has the authority to wage war against Iranian militias under either the 2001 or 2002 authorizations to use military force – targeting al-Qaeda and Iraq, respectively – Pompeo said that he did not know. Earlier in the day, the House of Representatives passed a key defense bill asserting that the Congress has not authorized the use of military forces against Iran under any act.

NIAC Calls on Bank of America to End Discriminatory Practices Against Iranian Americans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council is calling on Bank of America to immediately end discriminatory practices against Iranians and Iranian Americans and to conduct a full review of its procedures related to the suspension bank accounts held by individuals of Iranian descendant.

“Closing bank accounts on the basis of national origin or heritage is discriminatory,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Vice President for Policy. “If Bank of America is unable to comply with the myriad of U.S. sanctions on Iran without discriminating against persons of Iranian heritage, it needs to take that up with the U.S. government instead of passing the burden onto ordinary people.”

NIAC has received numerous inquiries and complaints from Iranian visa holders and permanent residents, as well U.S. citizens of Iranian descent, regarding closures of their bank accounts by Bank of America. In one case, and individual was unable to access their own funds when they needed to pay for medical expenses for their pregnant spouse. In other cases, Bank of America has closed accounts and sent reimbursement checks that have been lost in the mail.

“As tensions rise between the U.S. and Iran, we are concerned that ordinary Iranians and Iranian Americans will be caught in the middle,” said Abdi. “ We cannot allow entities like Bank of America to protect themselves at the expense of the rights and protections of their customers.”

Following the discriminatory measures taken by Bank of America in the wrongful closing and seizure of bank accounts belonging to Iranian Americans, NIAC delivered a letter to Bank of America CEO, Brian T. Moynihan, voicing the concerns of the Iranian-American community. NIAC had previously been in contact with Bank of America over related concerns in 2014 and received only perfunctory responses and no willingness by Bank of America to review or adjust its policies.

NIAC has addressed similar concerns with several banks and businesses that have engaged in discriminatory practices in the name of complying with U.S. sanctions on Iran, including other major banks and large corporations like Apple. In some cases, NIAC was able to help facilitate policy changes by the business, in other cases NIAC was able to secure necessary adjustments to U.S. sanctions policies.

NIAC is open to working with Bank of America to ensure that the rights of its customers are protected. NIAC will continue to to protect against violations of civil liberties targeting the Iranian-American community and ensure that all possible avenues for resolving such violations are pursued.

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Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Muslim Ban

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in the case of Trump v. Hawaii challenging the constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation 9645, otherwise known as Muslim Ban 3.0.

Americans and impacted communities have been fighting back against Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban for over a year, and today is the culmination of our collective efforts. By June of this year, we will learn whether the Supreme Court will allow a Muslim Ban to forever be enshrined into law as a shameful American moral and ethical blunder.

Lawyers on both sides argued their positions today on three key questions presented to the Court: First, whether the President’s travel ban is justiciable. In order for a case to be justiciable, there is a requirement that there be some existing controversy between the parties, that the case be neither premature or a case where the threat of injury has been removed, and that the case does not ask the court to make a determination of a political question. The Supreme Court also heard argument about whether the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Solicitor general, Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of the government relied heavily on the argument that there was a wide, multi-agency, international review conducted to determine which countries would be designated under the travel ban for failing to meet a baseline of information sharing, and added that the vast majority of Muslim countries were excluded from the ban. Justice Sotomayor pushed back early and asked if the government could represent that no other country that failed to meet the cooperation test was excluded from the travel restrictions. The government responded that Somalia and Iraq were excluded under the “tailored nature” of the ban, also making reference to Chad being taken off of the list of banned countries.

Justice Kagan joined in with a hypothetical of an “out-of-the-box kind of president” posed to the government: suppose a president is elected after a vehemently anti-semitic campaign where the candidate regularly disparaged Jews. The president then asked his staff to issue recommendations for security and what emerged was a travel ban on Israeli’s. The government responded that it was a tough hypothetical and he was not sure that this type of ban would survive rational basis scrutiny because of Israel being a close ally. Justice Kagan went on to say that this hypothetical, bearing a strong resemblance to President Trump, would not be about what is in the president’s heart, rather what the reasonable observer of the president’s conduct would think.

Justice Sotomayor pressed the government hard on the Kagan hypothetical questioning why the actions of the committee charged with finding a way to keep Jews out should not be subject to great suspicion and thorough review given that the committee is responsible to the president and they have been told what the outcome of their responsibility must be. Justice Sotomayor also eluded to the worldwide review report that served as the basis for the Presidential Proclamation and how it has been kept confidential and not been shared with either the litigants or the courts.

Justice Kennedy followed up on the hypothetical asking the government whether challengers, under that scenario, could bring claims under the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses, which the government conceded that they could.

The questioning later shifted to Trump’s campaign statements. The government asserted that the Presidential Proclamation is “very transparent” and that statements made by candidate Trump are “out of bounds” for consideration by the court. The government’s reasoning is that the taking of the oath as president marks a “fundamental transformation” from private citizen to public servant.

Justice Kennedy, widely considered a crucial swing vote, gave the government another hypothetical in which a candidate for mayor repeatedly made hateful statements, and took actions consistent with those statements once taking office. Justice Kennedy asks if those statements are irrelevant. The government again responds arguing that the actions taken by Trump are not a Muslim ban because the travel ban does not apply to the majority of the Muslim world and it was based on neutral criteria.

Justice Breyer shifted the questioning to the case-by-case waiver process and expressed skepticism that the number of individuals that have received waivers is enough to overcome the “real problem” of not having a good waiver process in place.

Neal Katyal argued next on behalf of Hawaii and began by saying that Congress has decided to reject nationality based bans before, opting to use a “carrot and stick” approach to reward countries that comply with requirements by fast-tracking entry. Katyal argued that in fact, the government has only identified a single problem, which is not individualized vetting but rather certain countries not cooperating.

Justice Alito questioned Katyal on the president’s authority under the current federal immigration law to exclude any alien or class of aliens whose presence would be deemed detrimental to the United States. Alito also asked if this Proclamation actually does anything to establish a new perpetual immigration policy for the United States. Katyal responded that this Proclamation is a perpetual, indefinite, open-ended ban with no sunset provision.

Justice Kennedy interjected saying that re-examination by the administration every 180 days in the form of a report submitted to the White House indicates a reassessment, adding “you want the President to say ‘I’m convinced in 6 months we are going to have a safe country?’” Justice Kennedy also quotes statutory language indicating he believes the president has broad latitude and authority in immigration policy.

Testing the outer limits of Katyal’s Establishment Clause theory, Justice Roberts posed another hypothetical: if the president’s advisors recommended an airstrike on Syria, would that violate the Establishment Clause because Syria is a Muslim-majority country and, therefore, anti-Muslim discrimination? Katyal pushed back arguing that this Proclamation was not introduced in the context of a pressing national security emergency like the hypothetical. In addition, Katyal stressed that the Establishment Clause is not at the heart of Hawaii’s position, but rather the flouting of Congressional authority in the context of immigration law. Arguing this point, Katyal said that if there are no limits to the president’s ability to prohibit the entry of any class of aliens, he could potentially ban software engineers from entering so as to protect the technology sector. Katyal argued that generally, the president can supplement congressional policy, but cannot completely supplant it.

Chief Justice Roberts also returned to the political rhetoric of the president from the campaign, promising a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Katyal argued that if President Trump had repudiated his campaign remarks, the Establishment Clause arguments would not exist, but the president has not repudiated; he has doubled down by complaining about his administration drafting a “watered down, politically correct version” to cure legal deficiencies, and retweeted anti-Muslim videos with captions like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” and “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!’

Justice Alito questioned how a reasonable observer could conclude that this was a Muslim Ban when only 8% of the world’s Muslims are impacted. Katyal rebuts by arguing that the point of focus should not be the 8% of the world’s Muslims, but the fact that 98% of the people affected are Muslim, or what he referred to as “religious gerrymandering.”

It becomes clear towards the end of the hearing that the Supreme Court’s decision may turn on whether it believes that the exceptions to the travel ban are substantive exceptions allowing individuals admission into the U.S., or whether they are merely “window dressing” for a broader categorical ban much different than those imposed by Presidents Carter and Reagan. Along these lines, Katyal directed the court’s attention to the case of a 10-year-old Yemeni girl with cerebral palsy who was denied medical entry into the United States. Justice Sotomayor questioned Mr. Francisco about the girl to which he responded that he was was not familiar with the case

Interestingly, the government revealed that to date, 430 exceptions (or case-by-case waivers) have been granted, though he stopped short of saying how many have been requested or rejected. Mr. Francisco also revealed that consular officers automatically check visa applications to see if they qualify for an exception/waiver. This is in direct contrast to what NIAC has heard from visa applicants who have received form letters and categorical denials of visas without being considered for waivers.

The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision by the end of June. In any event, other components of the broader Muslim Ban policy will remain no matter what the court decides. NIAC will continue to fight back against ‘extreme vetting’ and the sham waiver process in court, and on the Hill. Congress must immediately put an end to its shameful side-stepping and finally fulfill its duty to fully repeal this hateful and bigoted ban.

NIAC and the Coalition’s Fight Against the Muslim Ban

Today, after a more than a year of fighting back against the Muslim Ban, our community finally got our day in the highest court in the United States, which will decide whether a Muslim Ban will become the official immigration policy of our country.

As you recall, in one of President Trump’s first acts as president, he attempted his first Muslim Ban on January 27, 2017. On March 6, 2017, it was replaced with another executive order after successive losses in court. The embattled second Muslim Ban was again replaced with a third attempt, which also included an obscure and highly subjective case-by-case waiver process. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) challenged every version of this unprecedented and unconstitutional ban in court.

But the Trump Administration did not stop there. As litigation was running its course as to the executive orders and proclamation, the Administration was busy looking for alternative means to accomplish the stated goal of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

In May, NIAC was alarmed to learn of a new ‘extreme vetting’ policy proposal put forth by the Department of State which granted sweeping authority to consular officers to deny visas to applicants from the same Muslim-majority countries designated by the Muslim Ban. In response to this obscure and secretive new policy, NIAC sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the State Department requesting they produce documents related to ‘extreme vetting’ so that we could evaluate whether this administrative measure was being used as a “backdoor Muslim Ban.”

The State Department never produced the requested documents, so last week, NIAC sued.

In addition to court challenges, we made our voices heard in the halls of Congress. We told members of Congress about the stories we heard from the Iranian-American community of families being torn apart, patients not receiving life-saving medical treatment, and the world’s brightest students and researchers being stuck in a constant state of uncertainty. We told them about the drastic drop in visas issued to Muslim-majority countries by the Administration.

But more significantly, NIAC shared with Congress how the obscure case-by-case waiver process – which grants unrestricted discretion to consular officers with no set guidelines, policies, procedures or criteria on how to evaluate visa applicants – is being utilized to issue mass denials to visa applicants from Muslim-majority countries. Data produced in response to a congressional inquiry revealed that only two waivers had been issued, with this figure later being adjusted, without verifiable date, to 450 waivers.

For the past several months, NIAC has been voicing the concerns of the Iranian-American community on Capitol Hill and circulating a draft of reporting requirement legislation which we produced that, if enacted into law, would impose a requirement on the Trump Administration to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the waiver process, extreme vetting, and the broader Muslim Ban policy and how they are all being implemented.

Irrespective of how the Supreme Court decides the Muslim Ban case later this year, Congress must step up and fulfill their duty as a co-equal branch of government and fully repeal the Muslim Ban and all of its various components.

Don’t Let Muslim Travel Ban Join List of America’s Moral Failures

I could hear my heart pounding out of my chest as I stood in front of my first-grade classroom. A few weeks earlier, our teacher assigned us to bring a traditional dish from our culture to share with the class — an exercise that I now realize was meant to foster tolerance and understanding of different cultures in my predominantly white school.

“This is,” my voice trembled, “mast-o-kheyar.” It is a dish made of plain yogurt mixed with dried herbs and diced cucumber that Iranians traditionally eat as a side dish. The deafening silence was suddenly pierced with a loud shriek of “Eww! This tastes so gross!” More classmates joined in, as kids that age normally do, and eventually the entire class was rushing to the classroom sink to wash the taste out of their mouths. I could see our teacher out of the corner of my eye, laughing and smiling along with the rest of my class.

That was just one example of the many times I felt I did not belong, growing up in suburban America. These experiences were seeds planted during my childhood, and were slowly nurtured into a lifelong pursuit of equality and justice. I eventually attended Florida A&M University College of Law and served on the legal team representing Trayvon Martin’s family, doing my small part to rally in defense of black lives.

In 2014, I ran for Congress in an effort to represent all the people of Florida’s 10th Congressional District, especially those who felt left out and left behind. Back in that elementary school classroom, I would have never in a million years guessed the turns my life would take.

I am now looking forward to another major life event, one that should be joyous but is stirring those old feelings of dread and rejection. I will be getting married this September, and my aunts, uncles and cousins in Iran won’t be able to come to my wedding because President Trump has banned them.

As devastating as this is, the consequences of the ban have been far worse for others. We have left refugees stranded overseas with no place to turn. Mothers have been separated from their sick children. Grandparents are unable to meet their grandchildren. And why? Because Trump wants to keep people out because of how they choose to pray and where they come from.

The administration was forced to change the ban twice following legal pressure, and now the Supreme Court will consider the legality of the third iteration, which places restrictions on travelers from seven countries, five of them predominantly Muslim. They are Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. (An eighth, Chad, was recently dropped from the list.) Many of us will be watching the oral arguments in suspense, fearful that the land’s highest court will enshrine a policy that treats the families of certain Americans differently because of their national origin or religion.

The product of a diverse America is that Americans have very different life experiences and truths. But beneath the differences in skin color, nationality or religion, we all want the same thing: to feel welcome, to be treated equally, and to feel like we belong as Americans.

Celebrating our differences is what makes America great; the exploitation of our differences has always revealed the worst in humanity and led to bombs, barriers and bans.

The long list of moral failures in American history — the genocide of Native Americans, slavery and segregation, to name a few — have primarily been motivated by the exploitation of our differences. Indeed, Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing to the worst instincts of humans: to fear and view one another with suspicion; to see our fellow human beings as unequal and undeserving of dignity and respect.

We, as a country, have traveled down this road of self-destruction before and have seen the devastating consequences. True patriots stand for religious freedom for all in an inclusive, tolerant America.

I am holding out hope that I will walk down the aisle this fall and see my uncles, aunts and cousins in the crowd, wiping away their tears and holding up their phones to snap photos of my new wife and me. I still believe America is better than a Muslim ban, and maybe we will get this one right, even if it requires a favorable Supreme Court decision first.

Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel

MENA Category Rejected by Census Bureau Despite Clear Benefits

Washington, DC – The US Census Bureau once again declined to add a Middle East and North African (MENA) category for the 2020 census. Many Americans of Middle-Eastern descent, including Iranian Americans, have for decades sought the additional category so that the census more accurately reflects America’s mosaic of different cultures and the voices of Iranian Americans are not ignored by lawmakers.

According to the US Census Bureau guide on race and ethnicity,’ White’ refers to people from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Other racial categories also encompass massive geographic zones, for example, ‘Asian’ includes people from South and East Asia. In other words, an Irish American is labeled the same as an Iranian American, and an Indian American is categorized the same as a Japanese American. By including broad racial categories without making room for the reality of ethnic and regional diversity, the Census Bureau runs the risk of marginalizing minority groups by combining them into bigger and less meaningful racial categories.

Unlike other ethnicities, the Census Bureau does make a distinction between Hispanics/ Latinos and non-Hispanics/Latinos. According to the Census Bureau, “people who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.” For example, an American of Afro-Colombian descent might report themselves as ‘Black or African American’ and ‘Hispanic or Latino’. Someone of primarily European ancestry who is also a Cuban American might report themselves as ‘White’ and ‘Hispanic or Latino’.

Adding this category did not happen overnight and was a result of a strong push by Latino advocacy groups throughout the 1970s which culminated in the category being added in the 1980 census. Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at Berkeley, has written extensively on the legal construction of race in the US. According to him, race is an important census category but adding ethnicity can also have benefits. In 2009, Lopez wrote that “the census shows, for example, that 36 percent of Dominicans but only half that proportion of Cubans live below the poverty line in the United States. What is true of Latinos is true of other groups. No racial group is internally homogenous; whites, blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders all vary along internal fault lines.” In other words, this has allowed for a significantly more accurate and nuanced snapshot of Latino Americans.

Rather than limiting Iranian Americans to a racial category that includes 61% of the U.S. population, a MENA category could lead to the same benefits for Iranian Americans as the ‘Hispanic or Latino’ category created for Latino Americans. This is particularly important for communities that traditionally produce fewer elected lawmakers and are unknown or misunderstood by the broader population. However, some have expressed concerns about creating a MENA category during the Trump administration out of fear of its potential abuse. While these concerns are certainly justified, the information provided to the Census Bureau is private and protected by law (Title 13, U.S. Code, Section 9). NIAC believes that the benefits the category would bring to the Iranian-American community far outweigh the risks and will continue to advocate for its inclusion.

NIAC has long recognized the importance of being accurately counted as a community, especially in congressional districts where high numbers of Iranians reside but are often discounted by their elected representatives. In 2003, NIAC published a report with population estimates for states and congressional districts known to host large Iranian-American communities. However, this proved difficult since many Iranian Americans did not write-in their origin on the 2000 Census. Leading up to the 2010 Census, NIAC and other Iranian-American organizations partnered with the United States Department of Commerce to increase awareness about the 2010 Census and the option to write-in ethnicity. The idea behind self-identifying as Iranian American (or other MENA backgrounds) is that if enough respondents chose to do so then the Census Bureau might see the utility in creating a separate MENA category. NIAC Action and other Iranian-American groups recently encouraged Iranian Americans to submit public comments to the Office of Management and Budget in support of proposals for a MENA category on the census which could include the opportunity to check or write-in ‘Iranian’. However, these proposals have repeatedly been rejected by the Census Bureau, which says more research and testing is needed.

The 2018 Census will ask individuals who mark themselves as ‘White’ to also include their origins with the official prompt instructing respondents to “Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.” This is the first time the Census Bureau has sought clarification for the ‘White’ racial category and may be a result of an increase in Americans choosing to check the ‘Some Other Race’ category. But some critics warn this will only lead to confusing data.