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Iranian Americans in Politics Series: Mercedes Salem and the View from Capitol Hill

By Shabnam Sahandy, National Iranian American Council (NIAC)


Mercedes Salem

Washington DC - Like a lot of young Iranian American women, Mercedes Salem didn't get out much as a teenager. "I wasn't allowed to go anywhere!" Salem said with a smile about her adolescent years. Instead, a typical Friday or Saturday night was spent at home with her parents. Years of hard work in high school and later in college and law school definitely paid off. Salem's first political job after law school was in the office of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.


Sitting at a small table in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Salem explained how her parents left Iran for the United States before her second birthday. They settled in Northern California where she lived for the duration of her childhood and young adult life. Again, in a story that will be familiar to many first-generation Iranian American's, Salem went to college ready to pursue a pre-med degree. But she soon grew tired of the laboratory and decided to focus her studies on the social sciences instead. After graduating from Santa Clara University with a degree in Anthropology, Salem spent a few years working at California technology giant Cisco Systems and then returned to her alma mater for her J.D.


Salem describes her first year in law school as something of an experiment. "I was working to support myself and had not yet grown accustomed to life without a Silicon Valley pay check." She also describes a somewhat rocky transition into the world of legal education. "I never took a prep course or really talked to people about what law school was like. When I arrived on my first day of class I hadn't read the assignment. I felt like that girl in the Legally Blond movies! I didn't understand why everyone else knew what was going on, and I didn't."


But soon, Salem got the hang of things. Despite the fact that she was paying her own way, Salem was at the top of her class by the end of her first year.


Her hard work earned her a summer clerkship in Washington D.C. at the Department of Justice. While there, she got involved with the Iranian American Political Action Committee and helped them organize a briefing on NSEERS (the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System) which was then before Congress. During this time, Salem was frequently visiting Capitol Hill and talking to staffers. "That's when I caught the bug," she says. When Salem returned to law school at the end of the summer, she knew she would be coming back to the Hill.


After law school, Salem struggled to find a job, but soon landed a position in the highest office in the House of Representatives, the office of the Speaker of the House. In the spring of 2007, Salem worked on writing a Noruz letter to the Iranian American community which was sent out to many Iranian-American groups across the country and was also posted on Pelosi's website.


Salem now serves as Legislative Counsel in the office of Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez (CA 39th). In this role, Salem advises the Congresswoman on issues before the Judiciary Committee. Salem assists Sánchez with her work with the Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law Subcommittee. When her boss wants to introduce a bill, Salem has to review the proposed legislation, analyze it point by point, and make recommendations from a legal perspective as well as a policy perspective.


Salem says Capitol Hill is "still a bit of a boy's club" but says that women have made major inroads. Her experience as a woman on Capitol Hill has been overwhelmingly positive, she says, thanks in part to the incredible members of congress she has worked for. This list includes Congressman Patrick Murphy (PA 8th), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA 8th), and Congresswoman Linda Sánchez (CA 39th).


Being a minority on Capitol Hill has been slightly more challenging, according to Salem.


"I don't always look like a member of a minority community to other people. So sometimes I hear people saying things that make me uncomfortable, and they don't realize it until I say 'Hey, I'm Middle Eastern' or 'Hey, I'm Iranian American.' We [Iranian Americans] definitely don't have enough representation in the legislative branch, not even among staffers. There are only a handful of us, and it's a real shame.


Salem says that Iranian Americans need to look to other minority groups and how they have managed to organize and influence Congress. She points to her friends at the Congressional Muslim Staff Association as a "wonderful example."


Salem also says we also have a lot to learn from other immigrant communities, like the Latino community. Congresswoman Sánchez is a good example. "My boss is herself a child of immigrants. She is a self-made woman who worked hard and got elected to Congress when she was only 33 years old. I think a lot of people, including myself, can look up to that. I think anyone can do it if they take that first step."


Salem's advice to Iranian Americans? "Absolutely, absolutely just go for it and never give up. If you have an issue you think is important, never think that your voice doesn't count or doesn't matter. Just because you fail the first 25 times doesn't mean you shouldn't try again the 26th time. It's so important to keep trying...I can't stress that enough. Very rarely do things get done in Washington the first time around. And very rarely do things get done right the first time around."


Salem also has a message for voters (of all ethnic backgrounds). "Every vote for every Representative in Congress counts. I've been in the "war room" of a congressional campaign and it frequently comes down to a matter of just a few votes in some precincts. If you're not going to vote for anyone else, vote for your members of Congress."


Salem says one of the most important lessons she has learned on Capitol Hill is that constituents matter to elected officials, whether they are freshman Congressmen or the Speaker of the House. "A lot of Iranian Americans don't know this because they grew up under a different system - a system where government is not responsive to the people. They don't know you can contact your Congressman about issues like your visa. They don't know that members of Congress do case work for their constituents. They don't know they can send their kids to Washington D.C. to learn about politics through the Page Program."


"If I had one message to give to Iranian Americans, it would be this: Your Representative in Congress is beholden to you. They want your vote, and they want to know what's going on in your community. Take advantage of that."


This feature is the second installment in NIAC's "Iranian Americans in Politics" series. In this series, NIAC seeks to share the stories of Iranian Americans who have changed the world around them by getting involved in American civic life.

... Payvand News - 10/17/08 ... --

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