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Petition by one
Write to your representative

February 26, 2001
The Iranian

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is best known for providing the fundamental and inviolable freedoms of religion, speech, press, and peaceable assembly. It also gives the people the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The exercise of that freedom produces an array of contacts between the governed and their governors.

Big-time, organized lobbying is the most commonly recognizable form of this freedom in action. There is also the lone petitioner who seeks on her own account to engage her elected official in a point of information, conversation, or debate over a matter of concern, with or without a request for relief, or, as reported recently, even to seek a pardon.

In most instances, the right of petition allows the citizen to personalize a wider grievance: It also puts at the disposal of the elected official the evidentiary wherewithal to support change in policy for the benefit of larger numbers of similarly situated persons, and perhaps for the larger good.

With this in mind, on February 14, I took out pen and paper and wrote a letter to my Congressman Barney Frank (4th District of Massachusetts, Democrat), about the mistreatment of Iranian-origin travelers at U.S. airports. Two days later, he wrote back. His reply began, "Dear Mr. Mirfendereski, I am pleased to hear from you again on an important subject. I share your view that the harassment of Iranians is an embarrassment to the U.S. and serves no purpose."

"An anti-terrorist policy is a reasonable one," he continued, "but clearly subjecting every Iranian to this, including government officials and people who have been invited here, serves no anti-terrorist purpose and is unworthy of the U.S."

But he added this caution: "With a Republican President and a republican Congress, I'm not sure at this point what the best way is to approach this. I will be pursuing this idea of trying to get the policy changed," he promised. "When I hit on the best way to do that I'll give you a progress report."

I value my congressman's reply in two ways. First, his reply is evidence of his respect for the citizen's right to petition, and the corresponding obligation on his part to be responsive. Second, by replying to the substance of my letter, he has opened the door to further give-and-take on the subject. Will he be able to affect change in the scope of the search and sniff policy? Maybe; maybe not. Should I expect that he try? You bet.

Thomas "Tip" O'Neil, used to say "All politics is local." By writing to my congressman, one-on-one, I got as close as I could to localizing a national problem for my representative. But he is only one of the 435 voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has also five non-voting members.

For the Congress to be seized with the issue, I would suggest that at least one person of good-will in each of the 440 congressional districts around the country to petition his/her representative. Some representatives may be as responsive as mine, some may be not. In any event, in the minimum, each would have been informed of what is of concern to her constituent.

Awareness of an issue, acquired through direct constituent contact, is then the first step to a conversation or discussion among the representatives and their staff over this issue.

As a proponent of the concept of "Power of one", I would be the last one to tell others what to do and how to do it. But in the remote event that some like-minded persons would like to replicate my exercise in self-empowerment, I would share here the structure of the letter that I sent to my congressman.

I began my letter to the Honorable Barney Frank with the following, which served as both request for action and introduction: "I am writing to request that you call for an evaluation and review of the policy by which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Customs Service, airport police, and U.S. airlines are searching and finger-printing travelers of Iranian-origin at airports here and abroad."

In the next paragraph, I provided a faint picture of the general mistreatment to which Iranians have been subject in the United States. Because I had no recent personal episode to report, I invoked the twenty-year-old ghost of the Iranian round up by the INS, which had affected me personally. Each petitioner should consider relating his own experience with the government's sniff-and-search policy. If none exists, then maybe something like the following can do:

"When the revolutionary zealots took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, I President Carter and his foreign policy team instituted a massive program against the Iranian students who were studying in the United States. The students were supposed to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for 'interviews'. Many who had a specific date of departure on their I-94 cards were supposed to pack their bags and be prepared to leave the United States on the appointed date, even if in the middle of their studies. The refusal to comply with either directive would have resulted in deportation proceedings. That policy was reversed at the last possible moment when the presidents and deans of the Boston-area universities questioned the wisdom of the policy during the 1980 commencement ceremonies, when many of the Washington bigwigs were in town to see their kids graduate."

Then, I fast forwarded to the luggage and finger-printing abuses. "Twelve years of Republican rule and another eight years of Democratic administration later -- that is, twenty years later -- the United States continues with its mind-boggling attempt to influence the behavior of the Iranian government by mistreating the Iranians who travel to and from our shores. A systematic finger-printing and abusive luggage search of Iranian-origin travelers were instituted a few years back by the Clinton Adminsitration."

I chose not to question the legality or humanity of the sniff-and-search policy. Instead, I tried to question the policy by focussing on its defective internal logic and the asymmetries that it produces, all leading to the indictment of the policy as a public relations nightmare.

"The legality or humanity of this policy is not the issue here," I wrote. "What should concern any American of goodwill is the damage this practice does to the image of this country in the hearts and minds of a new generation of Iranians, whom we may want to befriend someday.

"If the reasoning behind the sniff-and-search policy is to increase security at our airports and flights, then it behooves the security apparatus to extend its similar vigilance and treatment to people of all colors, faiths and national origins. If the purpose of this policy is to irk the Iranians, so in turn they would pressure their government to do or not do what the U.S. government desires, then that is a different matter. However, judging from its results, that objective has not produced the results desired by the Clinton adminsitration, whatever they might have been.

"But if the rationale for the sniff-and-search policy is to annoy the individual Iranian, it has succeeded beyond expectation. One irate person even likened the treatment received by a pregnant traveler to the mistreatment suffered by the Jews in Germany and the interned Japanese in the United States. One would think that a policy which engenders this level of irrational and disproportionate reaction and resentment toward the United States has failed miserably. Instead of pressuring the 'enemy', the Iranian government, the policy has managed to make more people hostile toward the United States."

In conclusion, I queried, "How this sniff-and-search policy helps in the winning of hearts and minds is beyond my comprehension. Do we really need more people to hate our guts for a very good reason?"

On February 14, I sent a similar fax-letter to President Bush. As of this writing, he has not responded. If and when he does, I will be happy to share the results with the readers. God bless.


Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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