Reborn in the USA: A True Immigration Story
Fellow Readers: I am honored to share the story of my law student’s father whose ordeal with registration as an Iranian student yields so many connections to the current debate about NSEERS and the “Muslim Registry”. Please read and share Dr. Sadjadi’s story here:
In 1973, I arrived in the United States as a 23-year old kid on a B-2 Visa (Tourist/Visitor Visa) secured in West Germany, where I grew up. Yes, West Germany. The country was still divided into East and West as the Cold War era raged on with its fluctuating temperament.
Following some inquiries, I was granted admission to a college. The admission was not by chance. The Iranian student community was the largest international student body then, and, overall, they had established a respectable record.
Having secured a letter of financial support from a relative in Germany, the college was supportive of an I-94 Form (Verification of Immigration Status) leading to an F-1 Visa (Student Visa). The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services, which is now subsumed under Homeland Security as USCIS) converted my B-2 Visa to an F-1 and attached the approved I-94 to that page in my passport.
The ritual of obtaining an I-94 was an annual one, and it was contingent on (1) continued financial support from abroad, (2) full-time student status, and (3) an overall GPA of B.
The full-time status was no problem; in fact, I had to petition almost every fall and spring to take a course load in excess of 18 semester units.
The GPA was not an issue either as it hovered between the two top grades, flirting more with the one held in high esteem, rather than the B you had to work so incredibly hard for.
The financial end was tough. Often, and for days, I had just an emergency dime in my pocket. The dime was to buy me a phone call at the nearest booth; that’s when calls were connected for a dime. Of course you didn’t think about the scenarios that would require subsequent calls and additional dimes.
Things progressed until the game-changer year. 1979! The Shah was driven out in February; and in November, Americans were taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran.
The cognitive dissonance of the moment captured the collective breath and for many with memories still intact, the time to exhale has yet to arrive.
Sandwiched between those months was the completion of my Ph.D. qualifying examination that would allow me to begin work on my dissertation.
But the dynamics had changed. The revolution in Iran was no longer just about regime change; it had become a change in direction and orientation. An unprecedented ideology began to permeate through boundaries of established norms to take center stage in a new order. And brought forth was the planned society.
The struggle was on to adjust to the new realities and to figure out where to go from here and what to do. It was like being on a bus, headed somewhere predetermined, then, in a flash, there was this magic wand that made the bus and roadway disappear; and the passengers of a moment ago were sudden pedestrians in a vast landscape, in quasi formation, facing the same way as before, mesmerized, reaching to come to terms with a set of pragmatics that seemed so otherworldly.
But I could not linger in the surreal for long; I had to come up with a different destination that would be my professional life. I had no Plan B. There never was the need for a Plan B. To exaggerate, you went to school to become a physician. That was the plan. Why think of becoming an astronomer or fortune teller!
As I began to construct a new direction, there was a sudden jolt. With the sweltering hostage crisis in 1980, I was summoned to report to the INS for interrogation.
I had to face uncertainties many times before, but this was different. The circumstances were different. The histories were different. All I could think of was deportation. But where would I be deported to…Iran…West Germany…some Arab country that had agreed to taking in x-number of deportees?
Before leaving to report to the INS, I asked my future spouse, to contact an immigration lawyer should I be detained for deportation.
Deportation! Nothing changes your entire being like the fright of such an overpowering force. You are thinking cages, detention centers, being shipped out, being sent back like unwanted cargo.
The floor of the INS building was packed with Iranian nationals, not all were students. There were no smiles, not much interaction. We all seemed busy with our self-imposed interrogatives awaiting our own answers, and all we did with each answer was to add weight to the probing side of the scale.
I was called into the interrogation room. It was a big assembly area, a sort of cattle-call arena with government people at government desks asking government questions. There, in that vast phantom setting, I was fingerprinted and my mug shots were taken while I was positioned against a column with a height marker. What it felt like was being positioned against a pole for the firing squad.
The long interrogation followed. It stopped at some point. I walked out of the building. But the memory of that day has yet to end as does the unceasing memory of captivity for and of those 52 Americans and their affected families.
I grew up on scenes that had seen horrors; settings, where chiseled-out swastikas had left their chiseled-in marks; milieus, where discrimination had displaced carnage and where racial epithets had been adjusted to reflect the new realities. The impact is lasting, and it changes your perspective.
But when you suddenly sense you are nowhere at home, the horror of loss and uncertainty knead you into yet another being. There is no preparatory phase. You can only escape into your own imagination. On the optimistic side, you think we might be a few centuries away from exploring our capacity to be human, where philosophy is not a discipline you study but behavior you exhibit. But somehow you know that we will engender our self-destruction. And you hope that some of Earth’s remaining fish would make it to habitable land and restart the process with a kick to the butt rather than to the head.
We had to postpone our wedding again and again because my mother and sister were routinely denied visa requests to be at our ceremony. Repeat attempts to secure a visa between 1979 and 1984 were unsuccessful. The revolution dictated uncertainties; and the ensuing hostage crisis, the saber-rattling and the volleying of accusations were not confidence inducers for the visa issuing folks.
The assumption was that my mother and sister, citizens of a country that had lost its favored nation status, would be seeking asylum, becoming a public charge and never leave the United States. This phobia was like the Star of David patch, quickly dispensed and sewn on. My mother and sister were not the first, nor were they to signal the end of predispositions that cross national borders for a global infestation.
With our wedding date floating on a lifesaver in visa waters, aided by my future in-laws, we approached elected officials for help. Nothing worked. Time had to run its course, allowing for pulse rates to drop down to the cadence of logic.
We tied the proverbial knot, and through captured photographs we shared the joys of the moment in the glare of the time’s sorrows.
Still a student working on my dissertation, following our wedding, I was able to apply for and, with the help of an immigration attorney, secure permanent residency. An attorney was not necessary, but the climactic context dictated for steps to be taken prescriptively rather than daringly.
We had to supply marriage certificates, photographs, birth certificates, copies of wedding invitations and whatnot to show that this was not just a wedding of convenience, or, surreptitiously, some sort of a financial arrangement. The INS was more in tune with the few scams than the legitimate masses. Things haven’t changed much. People still generalize and demonize to the best of their xenophobic leanings.
About four months after the application for residency, I received my “Green Card” (the Alien Registration card going well into the Seventies was green in color, hence the term “Green Card” — the ones that followed, including the one I received, were beige, but the green card label is enshrined).
The years went by and mother was finally granted a temporary visa to be in the United States for the birth of her granddaughter. My sister, too, was eventually able to secure a visa to be present for the birth of her nephew.
Ten years after our wedding, I applied for US citizenship and went through the naturalization process. Again, all documents supplied for my permanent residency had to be furnished, plus income tax returns and everything about my background in Germany and Iran.
I took the required test and was sworn in. I was no longer a registered alien, a legitimate living thing from outer space. I was dipped in some invisible solution that caused naturalization. And the unborn was born. Voila!
People opting for the United States, or any country of their choice, do so because they seek a better life, an opportunity, freedom, the liberating sense of unchained thoughts; and in doing so, they point to the fact that we truly are all the same.
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