By Emily Porter
Sunday marks two years since the initial Travel Ban was signed by President Trump. In that time, thousands of Iranians have been denied visas to the United States, most of whom have been denied visitations with family members or have needed life-saving operations. In fact, of the countries included in the Travel Ban, Iranians historically have the highest numbers of visa entrants and applicants to the U.S., arguably making them the most impacted and most vulnerable to the ban. At a time when the State Department seems hyper-focused on countering the Iranian regime and calling for the protection of human rights in Iran, the Travel Ban stands, contradicting U.S. goals and further isolating the Iranian people. After two years of a failed and discriminatory policy, it is time for the State Department to reevaluate the Travel Ban and its impact on foreign policy objectives.
Proponents of the ban’s current, and third, iteration make two main points. The first is that the Iranian government is uncooperative with U.S. officials in sharing information to properly vet visa applicants. Thus, to grant visas to Iranians poses a national security risk. This argument does not acknowledge that in the past 40 years, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, visiting Iranians have presented no threat to national security while on U.S. soil. Moreover, the ban includes Venezuela for similar reasons, yet the Venezuelan ban only extends to certain government officials deemed responsible for the lack of cooperation with American officials.
The second justification is unique to the ban’s most recent iteration: the waiver provisions. Proponents of the ban argue that visa applicants are not technically banned since they can still receive visas through a waiver. They argue that the waiver provisions ensure that only nationals who do not pose a security threat are allowed entry into the country, implying that the Travel Ban does not prohibit entry arbitrarily nor based on national origin or religion. The Supreme Court agreed. In a 5–4 decision that gave the administration legal grounds to continue the most recent Travel Ban, the majority found that the inclusion of waivers proved that the administration did not seek an en masse ban based on religious bias. While in theory, and as the court determined, the waivers allow applicants an adequate option to circumvent the ban, their implementation suggests otherwise. Since its enactment, the waiver program has failed to provide waivers to the vast majority of applicants. In fact, during the first half of 2018, only 2% of applicants were issued waivers. Following public and congressional pressure, that number has increased, but the waiver process remains unclear and difficult to navigate.
The low number of waivers issued does not reflect the eligibility of the applicants, but the poor implementation of the waiver provisions. Before the ban, Iranian visa applicants faced extreme vetting and bore the burden of proof in the visa process. Despite this, many Iranians still were able to receive visas. They came to visit family and friends, and they took an appreciation of America and its free society back with them to Iran.
Beyond the Travel Ban’s disconnect from its purported purpose and its harmful implementation, it also damages stated U.S. foreign policy goals. In his Simi Valley address to a group of Iranian Americans on July 28, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran is to “one day see Iranians in Iran enjoying the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy” and “to support the Iranian people.” In what way has banning the Iranian people done anything other than suppress their aspirations and worsened their quality of life? One of the best ways to support the Iranian people is to enable the free flow of its people to the U.S., not outright ban them.
In the past two years, the Travel Ban has not made Americans safer, nor has it contributed to the U.S.’s stated foreign policy goal of supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people and “looking for outcomes that benefit the Iranian people, not just the regime.” Instead of targeting innocent civilians, the U.S. should focus on the behavior of Iran’s government and create consistent, objective policies to make our country safer. If Secretary Pompeo is committed to supporting the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, then he must advocate for the Travel Ban’s reevaluation.
Emily Porter is the Public Policy Research Associate and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.