Coming back home for the holidays, I always have more time to think. As the days wind down to the new year, I think. I think about the past year and all that was or went wrong in the hopes of a better year to come. Generally, I like looking forward more than I like looking back.
But this year it’s different. I want to look forward, but every time I try being more optimistic and positive for the new year I am reminded of just how truly dubious, anxious and frankly scared I am of what 2016 could bring and will bring.
Last week, Congress approved changes to the Visa Waiver Program as a part of its $1.1 trillion spending bill. Once the Department of Homeland Security figures out how to actually implement these now-legalized visa regulations, citizens of the 38 countries in Europe and elsewhere, as enumerated within the program, will not be able to travel freely to the U.S. without a visa if they have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan since March of 2011.
Moreover, if citizens of those 38 countries – like Japan, France and Germany – hold dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, they, too, will need a visa to travel to the U.S.
In the spring, the EU will review its own policy, and the changes to the U.S. visa policy could very well beget legally-mandated reciprocity by member states of the EU, as affirmed by an open letter penned by the member states’ ambassadors to the U.S. That means U.S. citizens who hold dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria could be unable to travel to any of those 38 countries without a visa as well.
That means concert pianist Neysun Rouhani, a dual citizen of the United Kingdom and Iran, will have to apply for a visa to travel to the U.S. to teach and to perform. That means Mina Bagherzadeh’s mother and sister, dual citizens of Iran and Germany, where they fled to after the revolution, will have to each apply for a visa to be able to see Mina and her daughters in the U.S. this summer. That means Ali Partovi, the Silicon Valley star who founded Code.org, will likely need a visa to travel to Europe and Japan, where most passport-holding Americans can travel freely.
This seems like a minor inconvenience to most – apply for a visa, and travel is still possible. But applying for a visa entails visiting a U.S. consulate, filing the application, paying a $160 application fee, doing an in-person interview, and then waiting, waiting, waiting to see if you’ll even be given a visa to be able to come to the United States. The same fears of security risks that influenced the legislation’s passing will make extra scrutiny in this visa application process inevitable.
Rejection of one’s application is more than possible. What happens then?
Applying is a long, taxing process, one that I have helped family members navigate only to watch them be rejected. Add this process to compulsory biometric immigration and background checks, and Iranian Americans will be effectively singled out as a different class of citizen. Perhaps a second-class citizen.
For me and my family, these changes to the visa program are not just about paperwork.
These changes to the Visa Waiver Program are allegedly intended to enhance national security, to prevent terrorists and mala fide individuals from entering the United States with Western passports.
Do I pose a threat to the security of other U.S. citizens, or citizens of the EU, as a student who wants to travel, study, see friends and family and live abroad?
I, like many others, did not choose dual nationality. The same way I did not control where I was born, I do not and cannot control the conferral of Iranian citizenship. I cannot renounce my Iranian citizenship. Under Iranian and Syrian law, if the father is a citizen, so is the child, regardless of where he or she is born or lives.
But in the U.S., it matters where I was born and where I live. As someone who was born and raised in the States, I am an American citizen, and my dualistic identity should make me no less American than anyone else.
This codification of Islamophobia and xenophobia does not end there – this is just one layer. 2016 may bring a new president who proposed establishing a national registry for Muslims, or at least mandating Muslims to bear some sort of “special identification.”
Alarmingly, GOP candidate Donald Trump is leading the polls going into 2016, according to a CNN/ORC poll released last week. According to a poll by the Public Religion Institute, 77 percent his supporters believe Islamic values are “at odds” with American value. That’s compared to 72 percent of other GOP candidates’ supporters.
To cap it all off, there’s Trump’s unceasing degradation, belittlement and objectification of women – journalists (a woman can only be a successful journalist if she’s attractive), politicians (likewise, a woman can only be a successful politician if she’s attractive) and his own family alike.
Where does that leave me, an Iranian-American, Muslim, politically active, female student journalist (who may not exactly meet Trump’s aesthetic standards)?
Only 2016 will tell.