Boston, Massachusetts- As an immigrant
community particularly susceptible to fluctuations in both U.S. domestic and
foreign policy, the Iranian American community has struggled to find effective
vehicles for political action. Today, however, Iranian Americans point to
organizations such as the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC)
and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and their work on Capitol Hill and in communities across America as
the first steps towards political mobilization. While many examples of this new
political engagement are found across the country, the work of Congressman Marty
Meehan on behalf of the Iranian American community demonstrates a model for a
working partnership with government leaders.
A member of the House Judiciary Committee, Meehan is a leading supporter of civil liberties and civil rights. He feels the upswing in arbitrary racial and ethnic profiling since 9/11 has come at the cost of establishing a more effective counterterrorism policy. Meehan has also taken the initiative to introduce House Resolution 72, which urges the interim Government of Iraq ensure that the charges brought against Saddam Hussein include charges for the crimes his government committed against the people of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. "Congressman Meehan realized that the exclusion of the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War would naturally upset our community, and he decided to address it," says Dokhi Fassihian, NIAC's Executive Director.
In the aftermath of September 11th and the legislative emphasis on tight controls surrounding immigrant exit/entry, domestic immigrant activity, and civil liberties, many in the Iranian American community were left reeling from the flurry of regulatory change. Additionally, the deepening political rhetoric targeting Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants-often unfairly including Iranian Americans-indicated them as a suspicious community and depicted them in a hostile light.
The troubling circumstances plaguing the Iranian American community were most acutely brought to light in December of 2002 under the National Security Exit Entry Registration System (NSEERS). An estimated 500 to 1,000 Iranian nationals reporting to various Immigration and Naturalization Services offices in southern California found themselves interrogated and detained for minor visa violations for which many were later deemed unfairly enforced. While in detention, many Iranian nationals reported being subject to humiliating body searches and confinement under inhumane conditions without access to blankets, shoes, or sanitary facilities. Many were transported out of state, far from their attorneys and families. To the dismay of many, the degree of frustration and anger felt by the Iranian American community was not met with an equal degree of political action.
Through the work of the IAPAC, Iranian American immigrants and citizens attended a public forum, the first of its kind, on immigration issues hosted and organized by Congressman Martin Meehan on September 1, 2004. The forum brought Massachusetts' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Officers together with leading Iranian American legal advocates from the Iranian American Bar Association and the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement to address an audience that sought answers to many personal and troubling immigration questions.
Congressman Meehan, in his opening remarks, discussed the universality of the immigrant experience by speaking of his family's own personal journey from Ireland to America. Quoting John F. Kennedy, he remarked, "Perhaps there are as many reasons to come to America as there are people coming to America."
Panelists discussed topics ranging from general concerns with policy and process to specific immigration issues brought by the attendees themselves. Points of discussion included FBI background checks, delays in the processing of immigration cases, deportation and removal proceedings, as well as issues surrounding the NSEERS special registration program. As one of the panelists, Banafsheh Akhlaghi, remarked: governments should "forever terminate the NSEERS program - a program instituted against the Japanese, begged to be banned by the Japanese, and returning today to haunt our community."
Congressman Meehan encouraged individuals with pending immigration/naturalization cases to follow-up with his office for assistance, and in the weeks following the forum, many cases were brought to the Congressman's office touching a broad range of issues. "Ultimately, it is about helping people, says Morad Ghorban, IAPAC's Political Director. "A congressman's job is more than debating and voting on legislative issues. A member's top priority includes serving the needs of his/her constituents and making government work better. The goal of the Immigration Forum was to provide an avenue for community members to discuss their concerns over the immigration process with their member of Congress and government officials."
According to Esperanza Watkins, Meehan's Deputy District Director, Congressman Meehan's office will handle over 500 immigration related cases a year, not including the plethora of phone calls received daily. According to Ms. Watkins, average FBI background checks for Iranian nationals take a minimum of 6 months to be completed. Even more challenging is the difficulty of traveling abroad as an Iranian living in America.
Ms. Watkins shared the story of an immigrant on a work VISA for a few years who traveled home to purchase an engagement ring. Upon his return, he was denied entry and sent to jail, forced to pay his return ticket. Ten months later, with the help of Congressman Meehan and the persistence of an enraged fiancÚ, he was able to return to the United States. Stories like these are not uncommon to the Iranian American community.
With few changes to regulatory and bureaucratic practices since the aftermath of September 11th, many Iranian Americans still feel helpless dealing with federal policy regarding Iranian immigrants and finding vehicles for empowerment. Yet, the message from Congressional staffers is clear: our community doesn't realize how much power it has. Local congressional offices are here to help you. Take advantage of this opportunity and reach out.
... Payvand News - 4/7/05 ... --