America is a Home for the World’s Most Talented, A Travel Ban Risks Losing Them
Of all the interventions the United States has attempted in the last decade to contain Iran, one of the most successful is perhaps the least known of them all.
It came in 2012, when Barack Obama’s state department began easing restrictions on student visas for Iranians. By 2015, half of all visas issued to citizens of the seven countries affected by Trump’s travel ban went to Iranian nationals, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition fees for US academic centers. Iran’s top academic and artistic talents flocked to America, in numbers unprecedented since 1979.
It is this quiet victory that Donald Trump’s executive order threatens to undo.
One of the thousands of students who came here is the Iranian artist Shahrzad Changalvaee, who began in the master’s of fine arts program at Yale University in 2013. Three years later, she found herself captivated by the presidential campaign and joined demonstrations in support of Hilary Clinton. On 20 January this year, Changalvaee, returning to the US from a trip abroad, found a different America than the one she knew.
Had her plane landed a few days later, she, like hundreds of other Iranian students, would have been turned away at the airport thanks to the president’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.
That this US election did not go as she had hoped was a greater blow to her than most others on campus. It brought back memories of another lost campaign.
Shahrzad and her husband, Iman Raad, a formidable figure on Iran’s graphic art scene, had invested much in the reformist presidential candidate, Mohammad Moussavi who challenged the hardliner incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the disputed 2009 election. Moussavi’s defeat prompted massive street protests, but the brutal crackdown that followed snuffed out the opposition green movement and its hopes for peaceful change.
This was the moment the couple decided to leave Iran. And America, now that student visas were being issued more readily, was the ideal destination.
By opening the doors to disillusioned Iranians, America became home to some of Iran’s greatest talents.
Shahrzad was not drawn to Yale for its prestige: she knew that the university would subsidize her education both with grants and institutional loans. Even with a full scholarship, which she did receive, she still needed more in loans – $35,000 by the end of her two years – to cover various costs.
When the matter of their budget in America had been squared away, the two still had to come up with another hefty sum to get them there. By then, the sanctions had gone into effect and the value of the Iranian rial had plummeted to historic lows.
And before getting to America, they first had to get to an American embassy, which Iran did not have since the hostage crisis of 1979. The couple sold everything they could and scraped all their cash together to cover an avalanche of expenses: plane tickets to a third country to visit an embassy, security and visa application processing fees, tickets to America, and attorney fees.
In 2016, Iranian students in US colleges and universities contributed an estimated $386m to the economy. Among international students currently studying in the US, Iran ranks as the 11th leading source of global scholars. This body of more than 12,000 researchers, medical residents, future lawyers, artists or engineers has only been growing. Those Iranians that become permanent residents or ultimately attain US citizenship (over half a million today) are among the most statistically successful immigrant populations. In America, Iranians lead every other immigrant group in having advance academic degrees and more than half of Iranian-Americans aged 25 and older have, at the very minimum, a BA, almost double the national average, according to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans.
For Shahrzad and Iman, the initial encounter with America had come with the anticipated shock and awe. A routine trip to Home Depot before the start of the school year had been astonishing. “I saw things in sizes I had never seen before, and it made me think of so many new possibilities.”
In America, Shahrzad felt different. Not because of her Iranian or Muslim identity – the bitter experience of theocracy had removed any religious affinity – but because of the experiences of the first 10 years of her life: “I was a child of the Iran-Iraq war. The memory of sirens, the fear of bombs were part of who I was in a deeper way than I ever thought possible.”
Another two years in America Shahrzad required an additional visa. An Iranian-American immigration attorney, Reza Mazaheri, an avid art collector and admirer of the couple’s work, filed a request for a change of status for her to an O visa – a special category reserved for individuals of exceptional talent. Mazaheri, who offers his legal expertise in exchange for art work, has represented dozens of Iranians. He believes that Obama, by opening up student visas, ushered a new wave of immigration which has already made a major contribution to the American art scene.
The O and EB1 visas are what many consider America’s secret weapon. “It is how the US has been stealing the best of the best from other nations for years,” Mazaheri believes.
Last December, Mazaheri managed to successfully deploy that secret weapon on Shahrzad’s behalf and secure an O visa for her. But with the ban – and the ongoing legal battle it triggered – her freedom to travel to and from America to show her work will be restricted. Her husband’s student visa will expire in June and unless the ban is lifted, he is unlikely to be able to extend his stay to work here as he had hoped.
The loss to America will be twofold. On one hand is the talent. On the other is the loans, a sum of $70,000 for both, which neither will be able to repay if they are ordered out of the country.
Since the ban has gone into effect, France has already announced a commitment to doubling its admissions of Iranian refugees in 2017. Canada, Australia and northern European nations are also potential destinations for all those whom the US will turn away. It will be difficult for America to retain its status as the first in innovation, if it is no longer the destination for the best and the brightest.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian. Her most recent book in English is Assassins of the Turquoise Palace. She came to America as a political asylum seeker.
Co-published with The Guardian.