Hello, dear reader! Welcome to this special piece of audio journalism: the story of one Iranian’s experience during the recent immigration travel ban. You can read along, or listen to the piece in full:
Won’t play? Listen here. Created by Dave Ursillo. Produced with the help of Rob Lawrence. Transcribed by Christianne Morgan.
When Mohammad and I last spoke, it was about four and a half months ago. We had the most low stakes, trivial, completely nerdy conversation you could imagine. It was an exit interview for a study on how digital workers — folks who work online without a traditional, physical office — do the work they do.
Mohammad is an assistant professor for a big university down in the Carolinas. His study wanted to put scientific analysis to this new reality of work in the modern world. “How cool,” I thought. I wanted to contribute so I did.
Documenting everything from common daily struggles to preferred cloud-sharing services. by the time we spoke, Mohammad had meticulously analyzed the data that I sent him and his team. We discussed different tech tools, digital services, and the newest mobile apps to support productivity in the Internet age.
Mohammad asked me questions like, “What was that little device you had plugged into the USB drive at the café?”
“A mobile firewall,” I told him, “You can’t be too safe on public WiFi.”
Then he asked, “Has switching from a Windows-based computer to your new MacBook changed how you sync to-do lists between your mobile and primary workstation?”
Like I said. Low-stakes, trivial, and pretty nerdy.
Four months later, our conversation was pretty different.
“We planned this trip much earlier,” Mohammad tells me, “to bring her here so that they can see her. And for the most part, we’re a tight family. We like to see each other. We want to be in touch. I want my baby to see Iran.”
Mohammad is talking about taking his young daughter, she’s about five or six months old, to his home country of Iran.
“We actually came here about a month ago,” he says, “A trip to Iran takes two or three days, and then with the jet lag and everything, it takes time.”
They can’t wait to show off their new baby girl to the whole extended family so they go back to Iran while Mohammad is out of work. The family travels to four cities to see extended relatives they haven’t seen in years.
And then, of course, some news.
“We had had fun until we heard about this ban,” Mohammad tells me, “because that was the minute that… I mean, it’s just so uncertain. Everything is in limbo. Even now, you don’t know what’s going on.”
Mohammad and his family became one of tens of thousands of families who are affected directly by President Trump’s executive order to ban immigration temporary from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
But Mohammad was the exact person who this ban wasn’t supposed to affect.
At least, if we believed the Administration’s claim that the executive order was intended as a stop-gap measure to prevent radical terrorists from entering the country. After all, Mohammad is a permanent resident. He’s a Green Card holder. His wife is an American citizen. His new child is an American citizen.
Not to mention, he’s an assistant professor at a major American academic institution.
We’re speaking eight days after the immigration order took effect, on the very day that two Federal judges in the US blocked the immigration ban. But things are still moving and uncertain. Mohammad’s tucked away in the bedroom of one of his family members’ homes in Tehran. I can his daughter crying faintly in the background.
I ask Mohammad how he first heard the news.
“It was Facebook,” he says, “and a lot of people were directly affected by this, and they started posting about it.”
It turns out that the academic community of Iranian expats in the US is pretty well connected on social media — in particular, on Facebook. So as Iranian professors, assistant professors, and students each began to experiences issues from the travel ban, a member of the community, his name is Hazir, decided to take action.
“This guy is an Iranian professor at MIT.”
Mohammad tells me that Hazir created a Google form for people to submit what was happening to them as they returned to the US from their travels.
The idea was to gather real-time data and determine if there was a pattern or formula for who was being allowed to return to America and who was being sent back. Maybe one airport would prove to be easier than another.
“So what we did was, we waited and we monitored that spreadsheet because we wanted to see if there was a pattern, if they were refusing entry to Green Card holders specifically.”
(Mohammad wanted to see what was happening to Green Card holders, of course, because he himself was a Green Card holder and a permanent resident.)
I found Hazir’s Facebook profile and his post sharing the Google form through a simple Google search. They’re both public and unprotected. The assistant professor from MIT wrote on January 27th, “If you know of such traveler coming to the US, please report their experience and learn about others’ experiences.”
The entries submitted to the form are public, too.
There are over 320 when I last checked.
One column of the spreadsheet has the header, “Entry Successful?”
The answers range from:
- “No. Was returned at the port of departure before boarding.”
- “No. Was returned after arrival in the US.”
- “Yes. Without any problem.”
- “Yes, but after significant delay/negotiation.”
When Mohammad saw this, he says, “We realized that it’s just, like, random, basically.”
Dual citizens, Green Card holders, non-immigrant Visas — the form displays a mess. It’s overwhelming. I can understand why Mohammad stopped tracking the entries.
“I just decided not to monitor it because that would just add to my stress.”
Mohammad, his wife, and their baby weren’t supposed to be traveling to Iran when the new president took office. They had planned the trip for the month before, but things took a turn for the worse.
“The night before our trip, which was supposed to be December 12th, my wife’s uncle passed away in a very tragic accident in California,” he says. And then, on the day of the ban, Mohammad’s sister and her husband just narrowly managed to re-enter the US moments before the executive order took effect:
“My brother-in-law and my sister, they were traveling exactly on the same day. They got to Houston Airport 20 minutes before they made the announcement, I think. They got their 20 minutes before. They saw it on television in the airport. They were immensely lucky. They went there with stress they said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen based on the [leaked draft of the immigration order].`”
“My brother-in-law, has a permanent resident, but my sister was on a visa. Had they arrived 20 minutes [later], she wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States. And I said, ‘There’s no way they can include permanent residents.’ That’s the way I understand the English term permanent, right?”
“Right?” I interject, “That’s how I understand it too!”
“Yes!,” Mohammad says, “Unless you commit some serious crime…”
I can’t help but nervously laugh when I hear Mohammad suggest that maybe he’s the one who’s mistaken.
Maybe he’s the one who misunderstood what “permanent” means in English. He’s giving us the benefit of the doubt. We should know what permanent means and what it doesn’t, right?
Here he is, potentially stuck in Tehran for the next three or four months, saying ‘Wait a second! This can’t be right. This isn’t about me, so why are fellow academics, students, permanent residents, Green Card holders, dual citizens, and my sister being affected by this travel ban?’
So Mohammad does what a lot of us would probably do.
He stops following the news. He waits. And he hopes for the best.
One question that comes up is why Mohammad is not yet a US citizen. This is another part of the story, but an important one. Because there are plenty of Americans who don’t understand why someone like Mohammad, if he likes America so much, if he gains so much from being and living and working in America, isn’t a citizen already.
“Why, if he considers here home,” Mohammad recites a sentiment he has indeed heard before, “why didn’t he apply for US citizenship?”
As if it must only be a matter of will; as if, if he’s not a citizen, it’s probably his own fault.
“When I was leaving [for Iran], one of my colleagues come to me and said, ‘Where are you headed?’ I said, ‘I’m going home.’ He said, ‘Here is your home. Why are you saying ‘home’? I mean, you live in North Carolina, you have a baby here, you work here.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, but… and I didn’t explain ‘but’, because I’ve been in the process for immigration since 2010.”
If legally immigrating to the United States is already difficult, it seems even more difficult for Iranians.
“Even before Trump,” Mohammad tells me, “one of the reasons that I’m not a US citizen… I married a US citizen in 2010, but my Green Card was pending for three and a half years. Then my citizenship is pending. They would never go through that type of process for other types of applications. I’m sure there is a systematic process for Iranians. But you can’t really ask them any questions. It’s just a process, that’s called FBI clearance or something like that. You can’t really talk to them.
“They just say it’s going through the clearance process. There’s no contact person.
“And sometimes it takes quite a time,” Mohammad continues, about how helpless and frustrating the immigration process can be. “My father-in-law, he has a store in San Francisco and he’s lived there probably for 40 years. He rarely travels outside of the US; he doesn’t really have a connection to anyone. But his citizenship application has been pending for 10 years.”
I feel the weight of Mohammad’s words.
Sometimes it can be tough to find the motivation that’s required to achieve, to succeed, to keep going. It’s all the more tough when you feel alone in a game that’s bigger than you, especially when you’re not feeling reciprocated, seen, or like you matter.
It’s diminishing. It’s deflating.
But Mohammad, he’s defied that.
He’s been keeping busy.
“I’ve been a good contributor to the academic community. I won the teaching award for our school and also a university-wide award. I contributed to the economy of Carolina, to the education of American kids. I’m very grateful.”
If the path to becoming a US citizen was frustrating for Mohammad before the ban, now?
“I’m not sure if I consider it home anymore. We are considering moving to Canada, Iran, or other countries.”
And can you really blame him?
Mohammad is still waiting to see if he is legally allowed to call the United States his home.
He wonders if he’ll ever be allowed to.
You just have to sit there. Wait, and wait, and wait.
Me, I don’t like waiting on anyone for anything. I don’t want to wait for someone to pump my gas for me. I can’t imagine waiting on an entire governmental system to give me permission to live where I live.
But, Mohammad says, the American people? They’re great. He loves Americans, and he’s never had a problem with the people here.
“My impression of the American people is overwhelmingly positive. We are practicing Muslims. My wife wears a head scarf. I don’t remember at any time being subjected to racism or Islamophobia in person. Online, yes. You see all types of content. Bigotry type of comments. But personally, our experience has been particularly super positive. We are very grateful for what we got from America and American people,” he says.
“From the government? Not so much.”
He’s just frustrated by the government, its snail’s pace and confusing procedures forms, long lines… you know, the exact things that all American citizens pride themselves on detesting about our system of governance.
So maybe Mohammad is the ideal American citizen, after all.
Maybe, deep down, he already is one.
“I want to make sure that everyone understands the difference, the difference between people and what’s happening in the government,” he tells me.
This distinction matters. I’ve heard it before. Our national allegiances, our patriotism, can sometimes betray the simple rationality of this viewpoint. Our governments may not be getting along, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t. It doesn’t mean that we are against one another.
I’ve heard that very sentiment across the world on my travels. I’ve heard it as recently as January when visiting Cuba, a nation whose leader almost single-handedly helped cause an outright nuclear war between the US and the USSR in 1962.
Sure, decades have passed since then, but I was still a bit surprised that multiple Cubans volunteered, when learning that I was American: Our governments have had their problems. But people? We like each other. We enjoy one another. We support one another.
Mohammad’s point of view isn’t very different.
“Our perspective toward the American people will not change,” Mohammad says, “and that was reinforced after this [ban]. The response that I got the next day from Facebook, I said, this is not going to hold up. So many people are so unhappy with this. And I was very happy. After that, my stress somehow went away. Not completely, but that helped me a lot. Because I realized that, you know, people are not going to be silenced.”
Hearing from academics is one thing, Mohammad notes.
But seeing the protests live on Facebook? That felt different.
“Academics for the most part are very liberal or they may be in their ivory tower and that may touch on the whole society. But when I saw those physical demonstrations outside of the virtual world, I realized that this was going to be very serious or this was going to be very difficult for Trump. I really appreciated that. Taking it to the street and making sure that normal people can see it.
“It was overwhelming and a little bit difficult with how many emails I had to reply to and how many Facebook messages and status updates and everything.”
“They were so sorry, and some of them apologized. I said, you know, I don’t want you to apologize, this is not your mistake. You are not part of this.
“That was very heartwarming,” he says, “and that is the reason I’m not really thinking seriously about [moving to] Canada.”
I tell Mohammad: we can be pretty cynical about what “change” is, or if Twitter and Facebook are a form of “real” protest, or if it’s just kind of pretending to make a difference.
I continue, “I think this is an example, Mohammad, where the uproar and the reaction might have done some good.”
Mohammad tells me, “I think this was substantial, I mean all the concrete changes that happened like the donations that the ACLU received, the massive donations… I mean, celebrities are watching social media, and also all the news outlets, now they have to pay attention to social media. I would imagine that all of these protests, the actual protests, have roots in social media. These people came from social media.”
Mohammad and I began to know one another, our relationship developed, in these hollow dialogues about social media, tech tools and apps.
And here we were, talking about them again, and how – particularly in crisis – how they helped bring people together.
“This is a happy occasion, in a sense,” Mohammad says, “On the positive side, it’s happy because it’s become a sensation.”
Mohammad was scheduled to fly back to the US through California on February 9th. That’s the very day that the US Appeals Court ruled that the travel ban would not stand.
Mohammad sent me a message on Facebook to let me know that he was back stateside. He was happy.
And for now, it looks like his ordeal is over.
And yet, for many, something else has only just begun.
The so-called Muslim ban is being interpreted as a warning shot, a bad sign, and an ugly start to the next four years of the Trump Administration:
- Just this week, CNN reports that the White House has asked for intelligence to justify a new travel ban.
- President Trump also called the deportation of undocumented immigrants a “military operation.”
Before we hung up on our Skype call, I asked Mohammad about the Iranian perspective on the new President and his Administration.
He tells me he’s from a pretty well-off family, and, Mohammad is locked in his own closed off social circles in Iran. So he can’t — and he shouldn’t — speak “for Iran.”
But based only on what he heard?
“To put it very succinctly, it was frustration, and sympathy. Sympathy that things are going to get sorted out. ‘This is not going to be permanent.’ And I think this was the right expectation.”
I continued with Mohammad, “It sounds like, even though people were thinking that your situation, for you specifically because you’re a permanent resident, that you’d eventually be OK.
“But that the Executive Order was the start of what everybody was fearing, which is that there will be more problems to come because of the Administration and their sentiments,” I say.
“Yeah,” Mohammad agrees, “This shows this Administration is going to go down the path that we’ve tried for so many years. This shows that Iran is at the forefront of the confrontation from the perspective of this Administration.
“And also, this feeds back into the narrative of hardliners here,” Mohammad admits, “that you should never trust Americans. Because one person would come and give you something, but then another person would come and take it back.
“It basically reinforces the distrust, which can be pervasive among many people here.”