Petition by one
Write to your representative
February 26, 2001
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
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.