Perhaps of greater interest than reading the tea leaves of Obama’s State of the Union remarks on Iran was the attendance of Bobak Ferdowsi, also known as NASA’s ‘mohawk Guy’. Ferdowsi is the Iranian-American jet propulsion engineer who shot to fame last fall when he led the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover. He is much admired in the Iranian-American community for his historic achievement in the space program, for the way he has used his celebrity to encourage young people to get engaged in math and science, and of course for his hairdo.
It is always encouraging to see positive, substantive Iranian and Iranian American role models become a part of the national discourse, which is a welcome relief from the caricatures we see on reality TV or coming out of the government in Tehran.
That’s why it is important to clarify some of the reports that said Ferdowsi was invited to join Michelle Obama in the First Lady’s gallery at the speech to illustrate “the need for more visas for highly trained immigrants in science, technology, engineering and math — so called STEM visas.”
First of all, Ferdowsi was born in Pennsylvania, and is a second-generation Iranian American. So his invitation to the State of the Union was probably to show young people that engineers and scientists can be cool, not directly part of any immigration push.
But while Ferdowsi was born in the U.S, his father was not. Like many Iranian Americans, Ferdowsi’s father originally came to the U.S. to go to college. And unfortunately, despite the rhetoric at the State of the Union, such opportunities may no longer be available to hopeful Iranian students in today’s atmosphere. The inconvenient truth is that Iranians who want to come to the U.S. under the President’s new STEM visa initiative will face major hurdles that have recently been implemented.
Last year, as part of a sanctions package, Congress and the President agreed to ban visas and entry to Iranian students who want to study any field that will prepare them “for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran,” as determined by the Secretary of State. As originally drafted, the provision was even more restrictive and would have applied to all engineering students. NIAC opposed the bill and successfully worked to get the engineering language removed. Yet still we are hearing that the restrictions are being applied with a broad brush and, according to many students, visas are being denied to study STEM fields that have little application to energy or nuclear engineering.
Meanwhile, the issuance of multiple entry visas for Iranian students that was championed by the U.S. in 2011 does not apply to students studying in “sensitive fields.” Those sensitive fields have never been articulated formally, but from what Iranian students have reported, many STEM disciplines are affected. Even fields like dentistry are considered “sensitive” because they include work with radiation technology.
I have also heard from Iranians seeking work visas that U.S. employers—particularly to the gas and energy sector—are informing applicants who are Iranian that sanctions prevent them from being considered. And fields that require the use of certain sensitive technology require the employer to obtain a special license for Iranian employees under export controls—which is often a nonstarter for hiring them in the first place.
In a sign of potentially worse restrictions to come, U.S. universities have reportedly received notice that their overseas affiliate schools can no longer admit Iranian students into graduate programs or allow undergraduate students to study technical fields or sign up for any non-introductory math courses. There are reports of European schools doing the same thing—rejecting Iranian students and citing sanctions.
This does not even begin to get into the increasing burdens for students attempting to take the TOEFL test under recently announced restrictions. And it does not address the problems of paying for living expenses when banks are closing down accounts for Iranians and sanctions are wiping out savings in Iran and making tuition unaffordable.
This unfortunate turn of events should not dampen our spirits about what the many accomplished members of our community have been able to achieve, particularly in STEM fields. Bobak Ferdowsi’s achievements and recognition, for instance, are something all Iranian Americans should take pride in celebrating. At the same time, as the President says he wants to open doors for skilled immigrants to come to the U.S., it is important that we acknowledge the pathways that were available in the past for Iranians. Those pathways have been critical to our community’s success and we should ensure that they are available for future generations.