Conflict & Justice

A crowdsourced database provides a glimpse of what traveling from Iran to the US is like right now

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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Teija, 7 years old, protests at the Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, January 29, 2016. He father was stuck in Iran due to the travel ban imposed by US President Donald Trump.

Credit:

Ted Soqui/Reuters

It is difficult to assess the scale of the impact of President Donald Trump's temporary ban targeting the nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But a crowdsourced database started by an Iranian MIT professor offers a frightening snapshot of the impact on Iranian nationals.

In the first four days after the executive order was signed, more than a 110 Iranian US green card holders, valid student and travel visa holders, and dual-nationals of countries such as Canada, faced challenges entering the US, according to a database of entries, detentions and deportations started by engineering professor Hazhir Rahmandad. He has asked travelers who have entered, or tried to enter the US this week, to share their stories via an online form.

Of the more than 311 reports voluntarily filed in the database as of Wednesday late afternoon, 235 are from Iranian nationals. Of those, 83 reporting being turned back “at the port of departure before boarding” or “after arrival in the US,” while 45 were allowed through “after significant delay/negotiation.” As of Tuesday, legal permanent residents (also known as green card holders) for the most part reported that they were able to enter the US, but often with significant delays.

The situation remains fluid and unpredictable though, including how the ban will impact US green card holders or Iranian Canadian dual nationals, for example. Trump's immigration ban initially applied to up to 500,000 green card holders, but then the Trump administration backtracked. They made numerous contradictory statements over the weekend.

For Rahmandan, creating the database was as much about trying to find clarity in the situation as it was about not feeling powerless.

"My parents were planning to come to the US, so I had some direct stake in this. Also, I had several friends who were coming in, colleagues and friends who were coming," Rahmandan, a US citizen, says. "When I heard about this, I was shocked and scared — and thought I need to do something about this, just to recover my sense of agency."

In a statement to CNN, US Homeland Security officials clarified that nationals of the seven countries who have valid green cards should be allowed entry in the US: "This is our message to them: Get on a plane. Come back to the US. You will be subject to secondary screening, but everything else will be normal."

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said it would no longer completely bar green card holders from the banned list countries from entering, but it would be a “dispositive factor” in allowing immigrants from those countries into the US during screening.

According to investigative new site ProPublica, Iranian and Iraqi citizens make up 50 percent of the 500,000 green card holders impacted by the temporary ban and the extra screening measures that come with it.

Of the seven countries covered by the ban, Iranians are likely to be impacted significantly.

Unlike the other countries on the ban list, the US is a popular destination for Iranian students. More than 12,000 Iranians were in the US on student visas last year, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report, which tracks the demographics of international students. Last year, Iranian students in US colleges and universities contributed $386 million to the US economy.

In fact, the number of visas issued to Iranians is generally much higher than the number issued to nationals of the other countries covered by the ban.

Nationwide protests and legal actions by the American Civil Liberties Union and volunteer immigration lawyers worked to help those detained.

Four federal courts have weighed in on the matter, ordering a stay on deportations. One federal judge in Virginia also ruled that detainees must be given access to legal counsel, but this wasn't happening in Washington DC's Dulles Airport. Attorneys at Los Angeles International Airport were also concerned that they could not speak to people in detention.

While uncertainty prevails, many lives and families are in a state of disarray. Countless graduate programs are being missed and jobs put in jeopardy, while families remain separated.

Relations between Iran and the US, which have been tense since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had started to warm under the Obama administration. The successful negotiation and implementation of the nuclear deal between Iran, the US and the so-called P5+1 countries had lifted numerous economic sanctions that had hurt the lives of ordinary Iranians.

With news of the ban on Iranian nationals entering the US, the Iranian government was quick to act with a policy of reciprocity towards American nationals, released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Javad Zarif.

"While respecting the American people and distinguishing between them and the hostile policies of the US government, Iran will implement the principle of reciprocity until the offensive US limitations against Iranian nationals are lifted. The restrictions against travel by Muslims to America… are an open affront against the Muslim world and the Iranian nation in particular and will be known as a great gift to extremists," Zarif said in a statement.

The foreign minister did say Iran would continue to accept all valid visas, contrary to what played out over the weekend and continues to play out in some places in the US.

Despite this, two Americans, Joseph Jones and J.P. Prince, who play professional basketball in Iran's Super Leagues at the Azad University of Tehran, are currently prevented from returning to Iran after a team-funded vacation in Dubai.

And it's this long-term effect, once the dramatic scenes at airports are over, that worries Rahmandan most now. It's the people who don't have green cards, who are in the US on nonimmigrant visas — students, H-1B workers sponsored by their employers — who will suffer he says. For example, foreign students who are finishing school cannot become professors. Many of the applicants to the graduate program in systems dynamic at MIT Sloan School of Management, where Rahmandan is a professor, are from Iran.

The US is losing credibility. In the academic community, the freedoms of scholarship has helped this county become dominant. "That's why we've become leaders in science and technology," Rahmandan says. Losing that position concerns him.

"I expect this to become indefinite," Rahmandan says, because the executive order relies on foreign government to supply information about people who want to travel to the US. The US and Iran don't have that kind of working relationship.

But since creating the database, Rahmandan has also found a community of people dedicating to keeping the stories of how people are affected in the news and on people's minds — to not normalizing the way people with visas will be treated under this order. The site of stories they are creating will launch in a few days, he says.

The original version of this story ran in Global Voices. It has been edited and updated with additional reporting for PRI.org.