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What would Terry say?
Profiling Iranian passengers in the U.S.

By Goudarz Eghtedari
April 27, 2001
The Iranian

The following was submitted to The Oregonian newspaper for publication but it was declined.

The Los Angeles Times reported that renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, best known for his Oscar-nominated film "The White Balloon," was detained last weekend for 12 hours by immigration officials at JFK Airport in New York, where he was changing planes en route from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to attend a film festival.

Despite the United Airline assurances of his clearance while in transit in the U.S. before boarding for Buenos Aires, the INS personnel, nonetheless, demanded that he must go through their "routine" security process, which entails fingerprinting, excessive search, interview, and photographing.

This is a humiliating process for anyone presumed "innocent until proven guilty" to go through, especially someone who had no intention of entering the US. He was then held four more hours before being put on a plane back to Hong Kong and from there on to Tehran, where he makes his home.

Panahi had been scheduled to travel from Buenos Aires to San Francisco and later to Los Angeles for the opening of his acclaimed new film "The Circle", but angered by his treatment, he canceled the trip.

Panahi later said "I've made this film ['The Circle'] about the injustice done to women in my country, and because of that I'm not going to take any injustice from any other country. The National Board of Review gave me the Freedom of Expression Award for the year 2000, but now I plan to return it."

This, in my opinion, is a direct consequence of the discriminatory policy that results in profiling of Iranians at American ports of entry. A law that was put in place as part of the Anti-terrorist Act.

The procedure has been waived several times during the Clinton administration while dealing with special guests. For example when Mr. Panahi was invited to the New York Film Festival last September, its director, Richard Pena, went to extraordinary lengths to make sure Panahi could enter without being fingerprinted. But apparently the new administration does not show any interest in issuing any waiver in this regard.

Thus we have witnessed many invited Iranian artists, athletes, academics, and ordinary citizens reluctantly return to Iran rather than submitting to this ordeal and to be treated like criminals upon entry at U.S. ports. Many elderly parents of the hardworking Iranian American citizens are also subjected to the same inhumane and tedious process upon arrival at US airports.

Even Iranian-American citizens and permanent residents have not, at times, been spared of such excessive searches and interrogation for no other reason than their national origin. Paradoxically, however, diplomats and officials of the government of Islamic Republic of Iran who one may suspect to be more involved with what the purpose of the act is, are immune from such treatment.

I personally experienced such mistreatment last year when I was accompanying my 80-year-old mother for a visit to Portland. Although she is a traditional practicing Moslem, she was forced to a body search in addition to isolated luggage check. The amount of disgrace to me as a U.S. citizen was not measurable.

A vague and general policy that makes no distinction between good and bad and singles out people merely on the basis of their national heritage can be manipulated and when selectively enforced, erodes the fundamentals of human rights and dignity on which our American Constitution is anchored.

Such a policy not only fails to enhance U.S. national security, it places undue burden on all Iranian-Americans and has led to a profiling and defamation of our community of nearly one million Americans strong, more than ten thousand of which live in Oregon.

It is worth noting that this humiliating policy stands in sharp contrast to the gracious treatment of the United States' athletes, scholars, and tourists who have visited Iran to attend cultural and athletic events even in recent years.

Iranians have been kindly described numerous times in books by our own Portlander, the late Terrence O'Donnell. It was Terry's request that his ashes be carried into the church in a favorite wooden chest made for him in Isfahan, Iran. His memorial last month and all of the following events were full of comments and anecdotes by those who have been to Iran and have personally experienced the hospitality.

I wonder what would Terry say after hearing about this situation. The hospitality that has been afforded to the visiting Americans in the past and today is considered a gift from the Iranian people to the noble people of the United States; an act of goodwill. It is, therefore, imperative that this act of goodwill be reciprocated.

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