Had I Been Born in Iran, You’d Do This to Me

To say I’m not surprised we’ve reached this point, this quickly would be an understatement. In fact, I’m more surprised it took this long.

The current President ran a campaign based on the dehumanization of virtually every possible group except white evangelicals (who still seem to overwhelmingly support his agenda). If you were a person of color or one of those who sits at the limits of whiteness, the target on your back only has only become bigger.

From immigration advocates, like my friend Pablo Manriquez, we heard dire warnings about what this administration (and even the last) was doing. To date, Obama deported more than Trump has. And to be clear, I was also critical of Obama on this issue. It was one of several disappointing calculations the 44th President made. More importantly, it created space for the sorts of actions we see today.

But the current state of affairs at the southern border constitute a severe moral erosion of American society. Far worse than anything Obama did, the current administration has decided to rip families apart as they try to cross the border. Most, if not all, made the difficult choice to trek hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain in order to seek asylum in the United States. They are fleeing immediate threats of, among other things, violence, persecution, forced sexual slavery, forced labor, etc. in their home countries—not altogether different than why many of our ancestors came to this country.

You wouldn’t, however, be wrong to suggest that in order to claim asylum status one must cross formally recognized borders. But even as I write this, reports are surfacing that those borders are being closed to those seeking asylum. Additionally, a little over a week ago, the Trump administration announced that gang and domestic violence aren’t grounds for asylum. Thus, nearly every asylum seeker will be denied.

To describe the situation facing asylum seekers as anything, but Kafkaesque would be a travesty. To gain asylum you have to cross at a recognized border. But that option is shuttered. To turn back means, you’ll certainly be killed. To enter the United States at a crossing that isn’t recognized means possible detention, family separation, and eventual deportation, because of the new policies by the current US President.

I’ve seen some suggest this policy by the Trump administration is no different than what Obama did. Or that this is a law passed by Democrats. But, claiming it was Obama’s policy is simply not true. Neither is claiming it was a law passed by Democrats, who haven’t controlled Congress since early 2010. That said, Obama, in accordance with the Flores Settlement, did house unaccompanied minors in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. But Obama did not separate families. In fact, he kept them together through the deportation hearings.

The Trump Administration seems confused, as well. On Sunday night, just one day after White House Advisor Stephen Miller was quoted defending the family separation policy, Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen tweeted that families weren’t being separated. On Monday, however, she defended the policy. Trump, himself, has blamed Democrats, while also suggesting it’s a negotiating tactic. Which is it Mr. President, a democrat law or a negotiating tactic to get your wall?

The policy to separate families, the one that has generated the heart wrenching pictures of children being ripped from the arms of their parents, has been Trump’s and Trump’s alone. The current administration bears the responsibility for the chaos, inhumanity, and moral depravity at the border.

To see many good people in Bardstown openly supporting this policy (using the same dehumanizing language the Nazis used to support and defend their detention of Jews) is at best rage inducing. But, I shouldn’t be surprised, as many of those I see supporting the policy to rip children from their mother’s arms are the same who defended the policy that prevents me from inviting my Iranian family to visit this country.

The bottom line is families should be kept together through the entire process—deportation or not. Separating them forces them to relive the stress and trauma they were fleeing.

Let me leave you with these two morsels. First, it’s important to remember the difference between us and them is we had the luxury of being born here.

And maybe the most disheartening thing is knowing if I had been born in Iran, many readers would have been content to do the same thing to me. Many you already feel that way about my cousins. That’s a shame.

America deserves better.

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The Immigrant You Know

This piece was originally published in the Kentucky Standard on February 21st, 2018.

When my parents moved to Bardstown in the summer of 1973, they were welcomed with the sort of generosity that has made the community famous. Bardstown High School had hired my father to be the new Math and Physics teacher.

Two weeks prior to the move, my parents had returned from a month-long pilgrimage to my father’s homeland. It was the first and only time he visited Iran since coming to the US. Just a few short months later, my older sister was born. For my parents, 1973 was a busy year.

Fast forward 45 years and it’s safe to say that both my parents have fully integrated into the community. They came seeking fertile ground to establish roots and found a community willing to accept them.

There’s no doubt that Bardstown has left an indelible image on each member of my family. No matter how far away we live, Bardstown will always be home.

I can’t speak for my siblings, but I am thankful for having grown up in Bardstown. Definitely, I would have probably enjoyed growing up in place far more cosmopolitan (DC or some European capital), but my life would have been fundamentally different and my Southern sensibilities would be nonexistent. And that would be a tragedy.

Our experience in the community could be used as an example showing the virtues of immigration and integration. A Muslim immigrant from Iran marries an American woman, raises a family, becomes a highly respected member of the community, all within America’s heartland. Every time I tell that story, I get a wide-eyed “WOW” or “That’s so cool” from listeners.

There aren’t many opportunities for people in the community to interact with foreigners, much less immigrants from Iran. But through my father the community was able to have an overwhelmingly positive experience. He tore down the media and political narrative through his selfless giving of time and energy to the betterment of the community—and to a large extent he still does.

So, it came as a surprise, over the last few years, to hear some within the community voicing their support for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, a local educator claimed that guns weren’t the problem, but immigration from the Middle East was. I guess they had forgotten about the man who had been their soccer coach.

Then there were the claims by another Bardstown resident that Muslims are terrorists and Iran funds terrorism. Sure, Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, but so did white Irish Catholics. Did we ban them? Sure, Iran supports terrorism, but so has America. Needless to say, that local had forgotten about their Math teacher.

Still others have tried to assuage the pain, anxiety, and real fear we (still) have over the last three years since the current President began his campaign. While voicing their support for the vitriol facing American families like mine, they couch it in the cliché “but y’all are different”, which makes little sense when fully considered.

It’s great that we weren’t considered like “the rest of ‘em.” But what happens when we leave Bardstown and we become “the rest of ‘em” for someone else. For example, my uncle in Iran has been planning on visiting the US and possibly traveling the country with my father. But since the rise of Trumpism, my father has told him not to come.

“Can you imagine Amir and me traveling through the Midwest? He doesn’t speak English. Two Middle Eastern men traveling, speaking Farsi, isn’t necessarily the best idea,” my dad told me.

He’s right.

The problem also exists in two other concepts. First, the idea that we all live in a bubble. It’s hard for most of us to think outside the small context in which our lives exist. So, when we think about our neighbors, we think about them within our own bubble. We rarely consider the realities in which they live.

Second, something that is somewhat connected, is the idea that shared experiences should help us build bridges and forge lasting relationships. If this were the case, then many in the community who both know and respect my father and voted for Trump should have had a hard time doing so. They would have understood the words Trump uses and the forces he’s unleashed would have a negative impact on the lives of my father and his family. But that didn’t happen.

Too many within in the community not considering anything outside their own bubble found it easy to dismiss the bonds my family had forged with this community, in order to embrace a slogan their own experience should have told them was untrue.

And now my family and I are forced to reconsider those shared experiences and question the sincerity of those who know sold us down the river for the cost of a false salve.

America needs immigrants to survive. Bardstown needs people like my father in order to fulfill its potential. We should be doing more to be like we were in 1973.

 

Why There’s No More Thanksgiving in Kentucky for Me

Ever since I can remember, my mother has hosted her extended family on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Our childhood home several miles outside of Bardstown, KY, is the spot for this yearly pilgrimage. Aunts, uncles, cousins, my now 96-year-old grandfather, and even some family friends would converge on our home–sometimes several days in advance. They’d come for food, football, fellowship, and old-fashioned banter. In recent years, as my siblings, cousins and I have married and some have become parents, the number of those attending has swelled to well over 50 guests.

Only three times has my mother failed to host our traditional post-Thanksgiving congress.

The first time was when my uncle got married in upstate New York. The second was in 2001 when my mother was working full time and chipping in as my brother and sister-in-law juggled being first-time parents with working full-time and finishing college. The last time was when my cousin set her 2013 wedding for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The tradition had been so engrained in our family’s ethos that my cousin called my mom asking for permission to schedule her wedding on that day.

Nearly seven years ago, as I was moving to Washington, DC, my mother made me promise to come home for the annual get together.

“Even if it’s the only time you come home each year, make it Thanksgiving,” she insisted.

But since the rise of Trumpism in the summer of 2015 and the embrace of much of the Republican Party of Islamophobia, I knew my attendance at the annual event might be in jeopardy.

As an Iranian-American and Muslim-American who had supposedly been openly embraced by my mom’s relatives (who are white and mostly Christian), I thought the sorts of vitriol and bigotry being spewed from the right would not intrude on our post-Thanksgiving gathering. My family and I should have been on auto-pilot from the moment the GOP went all-in on attacking immigrants, given the fact that my father is Iranian-born.

But they weren’t. Instead of blasting the right, they played the false equivalency game, suggesting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s low favorability numbers and her supposedly inadequate response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi were the same or worse than the invective and innuendo used by multiple GOP contenders to target immigrants and minorities.

I went to Kentucky in 2015 knowing that there were family members who either fully embraced this right-wing rhetoric or who were sitting on the fence. It was not a pleasant experience. To be sure, there were and still are a few who’ve pushed back against the creeping Trumpism running riot in our family. But they remain outliers, multiple standard deviations away from the mean.

By the time 2016 rolled around, it was clear that whatever hopes I had for my relatives to rise above such invective were misplaced. The relatives that were supposed to put family first and stand for obsequious hospitality driven by a strong belief in the Golden Rule, in fact, were enabling the type of politics that ran counter to these principles. Instead of circling the wagons and protecting all of us, they, through their silence or direct support for Trumpism, supplied the kindling that fueled those attacking us from the outside.

The Trump supporters in my family claimed that their favored candidate was merely speaking his mind—and thus was worthy of their support. But the sad fact is that they agreed with what he said. They nodded along when he targeted Muslims. They acquiesced when he mocked the disabled journalist. They condoned his support for harsh and brutal constitutionally-questionable police tactics. They parroted his racist dog whistles.

It didn’t matter, apparently, that members of their own family would be targeted or feel threatened. It wouldn’t matter that their support for him was a betrayal of everything for which our family has stood. It wouldn’t matter that they’d put politics before family.

The reality is, they are directly complicit in the fear and anxiety that my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and Iranian relatives feel every single day.

To date, the relatives who supported Trump have yet to openly show remorse. Instead, they’re relying on a false hope that our familial bonds will absolve them from having to apologize for their betrayal. While I still love them, my relationship with them has been fundamentally and likely irrevocably changed.  The people who I thought would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me to face hatred, racism, and bigotry, instead fed me and my Iranian relatives to the wolves.

This 500-pound gorilla will remain in the room at every family event until they’re willing to show some form of contrition—or at a minimum, acknowledge the damage that they have done.

Never in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined so many members of the family to which I owe much of my upbringing would be so willing to embrace a candidate who promised to target my sister, brother, father, nieces, nephews and indeed all my Iranian relatives.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the second year in a row (and only the third time ever), with the approval of my mother, I missed the Saturday after Thanksgiving gathering. I still love my family, but I do get to set the boundaries for my relationship with them. Last November, they crossed a line that should have never been crossed.

Instead, I exercised my right to choose by surrounding myself with people who I not only love, but also trust. I know they wouldn’t sell me out or betray me for some false promise to make America great again.

Don’t Get Hyper About It

At some point, every son musters up the courage to stand up to their father. They put their foot down over some trivial matter in an effort to show independence or to show up their paternal figure. It is a rite of passage. And usually goes horribly wrong, but inevitably makes the relationship stronger.

After my parents divorced and after being prodded by my brother to let us meet his family, my father drove my siblings and me to California. None of us were old enough to drive, so he was stuck manning the wheel solo. My sister and brother helped to navigate. I, too young to be of much assistance, sat in my car seat sucking my thumb.

For any parent, a road trip can be an extreme stressor. For my dad, this was a whole other level of stress. He had just finalized his divorce with my mother. He had not seen much of his family in many years. AND he had to drive a 1978 Ford Maverick, what we in my high school years would dub a hoopty, all by himself with three young kids at varying states of defiance. Combine that with his (at that time) notoriously short fuse, it was a recipe for disaster.

The trip itself took nearly a week. We would drive several hundred miles, four to five hours max. My siblings and I would get restless, my father would be on the verge of exploding, and just as things were about to go nuclear, an oasis would appear on the horizon in the form of a rest area, hotel, or some sort of resort. We would pull over for the rest of the day to recharge.

As we entered California on our first trip across the country in 1986, whatever plan my father implemented for relaxation the night before had failed. In all honesty, I think the main stressor was the fact he was about to visit his family. Those visits and any other since then always triggered something in my father. I have never asked him what it is that causes him the most stress or why his family is a trigger.

My father was loading up the car. Something had triggered his fuse. I was being uncooperative, Meena and Jacob were not helping either. Things were going downhill fast.

At some point, aware of the impending doom, and being just precocious enough to not really care of potentially making things worse, I stop sucking my thumb and look straight at my father, who at that time was raising his voice and angrily packing and repacking the car.

“You don’t have to get so hyper about it,” I blurted out. Not really understanding what ‘it’ was or understanding that my father’s rage could have had a second-strike capability.

My siblings, having fully understood what could have come next, looked at each other in shock.

‘David has no clue what he’s stepped in,’ they thought.

I promptly stuck my thumb back in my mouth having satisfied my urge to let my father know I disapproved of his behavior.

For his part, my father seemed to have gotten the message. ‘Calm down, Mohammad, what’s the point of getting angry with your children who aren’t responsible for your anger. You should be happy about visiting your relatives. You should be happy your kids are with you. You should be happy they want to see your family too,’ he told himself.

My father and I have had a rocky relationship, but even in the moments of shouting and fury, we have still found ways to understand each other, to get our message across, even if it took several tries. Maybe this was the first time we communicated on a higher plane.