While the U.S. Enhanced Security bill was a blow to the Iranian community, it was far from being a sudden or unanticipated one. The draft of the bill, which restricts visas to Iranians, was ready six months ago, and news of it was reported on a number of major Iranian portals. Except for a few who recognized the danger and tried to do something about it, the Iranian community at large ignored the upcoming legislation, believing that things would turn out fine by themselves.
However, for Iranian students studying in the U.S., the bill posed an immediate danger to the existence of their community by potentially blocking the flow of incoming students. A group of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University tried to express their objection to the bill and to increase the awareness of Iranians and non-Iranians about the issue.
In this article, we as two of the MIT students involved, will cover the history of the bill, the steps taken to oppose it, and the lessons we learned from our collective action. Shortly after September 11, Senator Feinstein came up with an initial proposal to stop issuing student visas for six months and to ban completely visas to students from countries on the list of states sponsoring terrorism.
While the first part would have affected all incoming foreign students, the second part would have specifically targeted Iranians, since they make up a large percentage of students coming from countries on the list. This proposal triggered objection from Iranian students and the Iranian-American community, including articles published by Stanford students in their local newspapers and an online petition by the Persian Watch Center.
Major educational institutions were also vocal in opposing the bill. Under this pressure, Feinstein reached a compromise with the American Council of Education (ACE), a lobby group representing higher education institutions, to drop the six-month moratorium on issuing student visas, but to keep the visa ban on students from countries on the list of states sponsoring terrorism. Later, the bill was upgraded to ban all non-immigrant visas from these countries.
Meanwhile, Senator Kennedy was preparing his own version of the Border Security bill.
After Kennedy and Feinstein's versions were combined, the final draft of the bill contained Section 306, which banned the issuance of visas to citizens of the listed countries unless an individual was proven not dangerous by the State Department and the Justice Department.
A few Iranians who were closely following these unfortunate developments tried to alert the Iranian community about the ongoing events. The Persian Students Association (PSA) of MIT and the Iranian Association of Boston (IAB), along with a few other organizations, sponsored a petition against the bill in January. We, students from M.I.T who decided to get involved, knew that the chance of changing the outcome was low. Nevertheless, we decided to voice our opposition and put up a resistance.
The Iranian Association of Boston (IAB), who shared our concern, joined us in a collaborative action to petition Senator Kennedy. Despite the political nature of the bill, IAB, a non-political organization, got actively involved by focusing on the violation of civil rights of Iranians in America without taking any stance on the relationship between the governments of Iran and America.
The petition was well publicized in the Iranian community through different portals and mailing lists across the U.S. The level of our success was shown by the passage of the bill by a vote of 97-0. Moreover, Our objection to the bill did not even get the attention of any TV networks or major newspapers (compare this to the media coverage of objection of Arab Anti-Discrimination groups to the interviewing of 5,000 Muslim/Arab men, a far less harmful act than this bill.) The experience points out the lack of participation of Iranians in the local politics, even compared to other Middle Eastern groups.
Nevertheless, we are not disappointed from our collective action. We learned through this effort how we could participate in the “democratic process” and organize to engage in the politics of this country to defend our rights. We made new friends, improved our communication and collaboration skills, and feel empowered. These are equally as important as defending our rights. Beyond all, working with other Iranians helped us develop a more positive view of the potential for group work of Iranians. We recognized that it is difficult to directly affect mainstream politics, which acts to demonize Iranians along with other Middle Easterns/Muslims.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities for us to increase awareness in our local institutions. In MIT, we tried to engage the university to take a position on the issue. Notable Iranians in the university sent individual letters to the President of the university asking him to oppose the bill. The help and support of a local activist group were crucial, too. A petition-drive asking MIT to fight against the bill was launched by the Social Justice Cooperative and the Middle Eastern Club.
Although MIT students might share the negative stereotypes of the rest of Americans, when they see that these stereotypes are directly affecting their friends or fellow students, they show willingness to act against it. Once the petition with 600 signatures, was delivered to MIT President Charles Vest, he responded to a letter from PSA that had been sent two weeks earlier.
In his letter, Vest stated that while MIT had endorsed the bill along with other higher-education institutions, the university would work to insure that Iranian students and researchers engaging in legitimate scholarly activities would continue to have the opportunity to come to MIT. A strongly worded editorial followed in the Tech, the school's newspaper, objecting to the bill and encouraging MIT to take a stand against it.
We, as a minority group in the U.S., need to follow closely the political developments affecting us and get to know the players involved. We need to move faster and influence the course of events before they are solidified. Petitioning is one of the first steps of political engagement, but political engagement does not stop there. Now that the politics of this country is working against us, we need to start by organizing in our immediate neighborhood to engage our institutions, community centers, mosques and churches.
Together, we need to express our objection to the unfair treatment toward us, and get support of the local community for our cause. Engaging in such collaborative actions will bring us many new lessons, friends and experiences.