On 18 December 2015, President Obama signed a law that could result in highly discriminatory measures against US citizens of Iranian, Sudanese, Iraqi, and Syrian descent. Prior to this legislation, nationals of thirty-eight countries, mostly in Europe, were able to travel to the United States for ninety days without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This new law, formerly known as HR 158, mandates that the VWP not apply to citizens of those countries who are also dual citizens of Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan, as well others who have traveled to those countries since 2011. People no longer qualified for a waiver must submit to stricter screening as well as the time-consuming and costly process of obtaining visas. The VWP countries will likely reciprocate the measure, meaning that US citizens who are also nationals of one of the four countries will be treated differently from other citizens; they will face the humiliation of being put into a second class category and subjected to stricter screening and attacks on their right to travel.
The Forces of Xenophobia and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
Contrary to proponents’ claims that HR 158 was a response to the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December San Bernardino mass shooting, the bill was introduced in the House of Representatives almost a year before these incidents on 6 January 2015 by Michigan Republican Representative Candice Miller. A look at Miller’s previous proposed legislation reveals a staunchly anti-immigrant agenda. She has sponsored numerous bills aimed at further militarizing the border and enlarging the Border Patrol, and supported others which have already led to increased violence against migrants including detention, assault, and numerous deaths. Her record contributes to an intensifying culture of xenophobia and racial profiling.
Latino/a communities have faced heightened racial profiling on the assumption that they are undocumented migrants. Given the geographic location of Miller’s home state, Michigan, her proposed bills also routinely mention the security of the “Northern border,” the militarization of which has impacted indigenous (Native American and First Nation) communities living in the border region who are often mistaken for migrants. These communities have been divided by the border for generations, but subjected to more intense levels of violence due to border militarization since the 1990s.
While Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein had announced plans for similarly discriminatory legislation impacting Iraqi and Syrian nationals, it is likely that Miller’s addition of Iran to her version of the bill was a political move to undermine the Obama administration’s Joint-Comprehensive Plan (nuclear deal) with Iran, given that Iran and the United States had extended talks for a finalized agreement two months before Miller proposed HR 158. In fact, in July and September 2015, Miller co-sponsored two bills to annul the nuclear deal and to bar President Obama from lifting sanctions against Iran. The Department of Homeland Security was opposed to both Miller and Feinstein’s proposed legislation to change the visa waiver program, noting that security measures had already been built into it.
Nationality/Ethnicity/Religion? On What Basis Does this Racism Target Us?
A law such as HR 158 is not exactly new. Immediately after 9/11, the US government began the “special registration” program mandating that non-resident immigrant men in the United States with national origin from twenty-four Muslim-majority countries in far-flung corners of the globe (as well as North Korea) be photographed, finger-printed, and interviewed. The law eventually was abandoned because of difficulties in enforcement, but only after 13,000 people had been deported with not a single terrorist suspect found among them.[i]
Given this history, HR 158 and other recent federal policies renew an important debate for activists about who exactly is being targeted in the United States and how to mobilize against these forms of racism. Nadine Naber has argued that because of the open-ended rhetoric of Bush’s “War on Terror,” the category “’Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim’ operated as a constructed category that lumps together several incongruous subcategories (such as Arabs and Iranians, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and all Muslims from Muslim-majority countries, as well as persons who are perceived to be Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim, such as South Asians, including Sikhs and Hindus).”[ii] The slashes in “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” demonstrate that people affected by this racism and xenophobia in some instances experience the injustice on the basis of their ethnicity, in other instances on the basis of their national origin, and in other instances on the basis of their religion.
Other activists rightly noted that Islamophobia, the racist assumption that Muslims everywhere are essentially violent and against “human civilization,” is a significant racial logic of our time with terrible consequences. Yet what do we make of the explicitly nationality-based policies such as HR 158 which do not explicitly name Muslims but rather people with national origin from countries in the Middle East and North Africa? This racism bears a similar pattern to the xenophobia that other immigrant groups have faced throughout US history. Government agencies find time and again that the targeting of nationality rather than only fanning religion-based bigotry is a more expansive technique of controlling populations to achieve US geopolitical interests in the Middle East, as well as to appease growing right-wing racist attitudes among some sectors of the white working and middle classes. These policies are thus part of a larger anti-immigrant sentiment and culture of xenophobia that also produces types of legislation similar to Miller’s border militarization bills impacting economic migrants and indigenous peoples in the borderlands alike.
Following 9/11, many activists viewed anti-immigrant policies such as the PATRIOT Act as a Middle Eastern/Muslim/South Asian issue while others viewed the Border Protection Bill of 2006 calling for further marginalization of undocumented immigrants as a Latino issue. That each bill affected members of both Middle Eastern and Latino communities should serve as a reminder in our current moment about how solidarities can be deepened among multiple groups in the face of a heightening anti-immigrant sentiment on several fronts.
Foreign Policy Objectives and Domestic Anti-Immigrant Sentiment: The Case of Iran Sanctions
The case of US-led sanctions against Iran demonstrates one example of nationality-based profiling that was enshrined into law and intensified xenophobia against varying generations of Iranian immigrants, from recent immigrants to US-born children of Iranian parents. Some may remember how in February 2015, one month after HR 158 was introduced in the House, University of Massachusetts-Amherst passed a policy that would deny Iranian nationals admissions into the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Engineering, claiming that they were doing so with respect to economic sanctions against Iran which prohibited Iranians who were seeking to work in Iran’s nuclear program from obtaining education in US universities. The administration was forced to repeal the policy after much protest among the Iranian community. Even so, what is important is the willingness and relative ease with which institutions are giving in to anti-Middle Eastern sentiment and fueling a dangerously xenophobic climate. The UMass administration’s justification stated: “[T]he exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles. However, as with any college or university, we have no choice to institute policies and procedure to ensure that we are in full compliance with all applicable laws.”
By claiming that its hands were tied and that it was simply following “applicable laws,” UMass executed the paradoxical gesture of claiming values of multicultural inclusion while sanctioning exclusion. Bizarrely the statement declares its opposition to “the exclusion of a class of students,” but allows the administration to conveniently hide behind federal law to execute such an exclusion. UMass’s response is based in liberal rhetoric as opposed to the blatantly anti-multicultural rhetoric of right-wing figures such as Donald Trump who seek the same goal of “banning” particular groups of people from the United States. Thus, with the enshrining of xenophobia into law, liberal voices too can opt out of the contradiction of going against their alleged values and join the chorus of anti-Middle Eastern racism.
More strangely, what seems to be lost on UMass administrators is that no other university in the country passed such a policy and has not yet faced penalties from the federal government for violating federal sanctions law. That UMass took it upon itself to proactively enforce the law reveals the deep-seated anti-Middle Eastern attitudes of its own administrators. Denying Iranian nationals admission to all science and engineering programs on the general assumption that any Iranian studying any of these fields will pursue a career in the Iranian state’s nuclear program—if we bracket the poor logic that ignores the hundreds of other career choices these degrees qualify one for as well as the fact that significant numbers of Iranian immigrant students do not return to Iran because of economic difficulties—such an assumption makes clear that these policies are based on racist attitudes about an entire national group.
During the same time as the UMass policy was being initiated, three Muslim American students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill were murdered by a man who had posted anti-Muslim slogans online. This simultaneity is indicative of the current climate in which both religion-based bigotry and nationality-based profiling are two interlocking components of an intensifying racism that sometimes manifests as Islamophobia while other times as a broader more traditional xenophobia.
Another example of sanctions policy which broadly impacted Iranians was the crippling banking sanctions against Iran. Ordinary Iranians both in the United States and Europe experienced closures of their bank accounts resulting in major financial obstacles for students who depend on family remittances from Iran which often end up being blocked as a result of the financial sanctions. US-born citizens of Iranian descent have experienced similar closures of their bank accounts and other types of e-commerce accounts. Again, the broad impact of this policy, like the others discussed above, reflects an anti-Iranian racism that led to an enshrining into law of broad nationality-based discrimination.
On 21 January 2016, the Obama administration, in a move to save the viability of the nuclear deal, announced that the new visa restrictions would be waived on a case-by-case basis for journalists and aid workers as well as for those who have traveled to Iran “for legitimate business-related purposes following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” This limited relief leaves out the vast majority of other Iranians, including students, academics, and ordinary people visiting family who will still face discriminatory screening and potential barring from travel. The Obama administration’s announcement indicates that Iranians who cooperate with the United States in opening up Iranian markets including in natural gas and oil for US and European corporations are the only ones worthy of being treated like any other citizen of the thirty-eight visa waiver-granting countries. Such an economic calculation explains why it was so easy for the United States to target virtually all Iranian nationals in its sanctions policy and never once admit to the dire humanitarian consequences of such a policy; using the sanctions to open up Iranian markets was too important to cave in to humanitarian concerns.
The lifting of sanctions, if it ever happens fully, will lead to the easing of some hardship for Iranians. Yet if we remember the broad consensus among grassroots social justice activists in Iran that sanctions were harming their civil resistance movements as well as the population at large and criticisms of sanctions from ordinary people, it makes perfect sense why now, too, the Obama administration can write off the vast majority of Iranians in the most limited remedy to this bill.
The example of sanctions can help us to see the ways in which the fanning of anti-immigrant sentiment against Arabs, Iranians, and other groups has been largely related to US economic interests in foreign policy. Nationality-sensitive laws (a result of political-economic goals) then again feed back into mainstream anti-immigrant racial attitudes in which identities as seemingly incomparable as “Palestinian Christian,” “South Asian Sikh,” or “Iranian student” are lumped together in a category in which they are seen as always already predisposed to irrational violence.
Resisting Fragmentation, Expanding Meaningful Solidarities
While before 9/11, Arabs and Iranians often were represented in the media as problematic because of perceived ties to terrorism, at other times misguided analysts assigned a status of “model minority” to them as a way to admonish other groups, particularly Black, Latino, and Native American communities, for their social marginality, erasing the fact that many in these latter groups had faced historic and systemic inequities which blocked access to social resources such as education and employment across generations. Yet as the variants of post-9/11 racism remind us, any inclusion for Middle Eastern communities into US democracy is both precarious and contingent upon geopolitical and economic interests, and thus ultimately is a false promise.
Thus, it is crucial to view HR 158 and similar policies as part and parcel of larger forces of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States in order to deepen a sense of joint struggle with communities who have faced similar structures of xenophobia. For example, many migrant justice activists have shed light on the fact that much of the economic disparities that lead to mass migration from poor countries have been caused by transnational trade policy pushed by Western nations and enduring disparities of European colonialism. Therefore, when migrant justice activists demand “Not One More Deportation,” “No One Is Illegal,” and respect, dignity, and socio-economic justice for all migrants both with and without papers, they call for the reversal of those economic disparities and a remedying of the global gap between rich and poor.
This is also a call for freedom of movement as a fundamental human right. In collaboration with rights activists in other migrant communities, we can join this call for freedom of movement as a right in our fight against HR 158. After all, it is our right to travel and exchange knowledge, to be with our families, and to make connections and build communities with people outside this country. Already, numerous European citizens of Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese, and Syrian descent have been turned away at airports or informed that they are barred from traveling days before their flights.
If we recognize HR 158 as an attack on our freedom of movement, in this light Miller’s authorship of the bill seems to have stemmed just as much from her general anti-immigrant agenda and views as it did from her racism against Iranian, Arab, and Sudanese people and her desire to undermine Obama’s Iran deal. Those of us affected by this bill can thus activate and deepen solidarities with the migrant justice movement. Further, realizing that buying into a model minority status does not actually guarantee us rights or security in the long run, we can also enact meaningful solidarities with the momentous ongoing uprising that has been Black Lives Matter and refuse to be used in a way to put other groups down. Rather, we can move forward by fighting to end institutional racism on several fronts, from the prison and criminal justice systems, to education, and to immigration.
[i] Nadine Naber, “Look Mohammed the Terrorist Is Coming: Cultural Racism, Nation-Based Racism, and the Intersectionality of Oppressions After 9/11," in Race and Arab-Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects, ed. Amaney Jamal (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 288.
[ii] Ibid., 279.