For Lansing resident and Iranian asylee Amin Ghorbanpour, the path to an advanced engineering degree has been a struggle of epic proportions - even if you assume it's easy to get such a degree to begin with.
For years, it was his home country which - through systemic oppression of members of the Baha'i faith like himself - made his educational aspirations seemingly impossible. Born five years after his grandfather was executed without explanation by the Iranian government, Ghorbanpour and his family have seen their entire lives shaped by a refusal to renounce their faith despite ample motivation to do so.
Now, as he prepares to receive his doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington, it's an American policy that will likely prevent his parents from seeing the culmination of his - and his entire family's - lifelong battle against the odds: his graduation day.
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold President Donald Trump's ban on travel from seven countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela. Muslims make up at least 95 percent of the population of all of these countries except Syria (where an estimated 87 percent of citizens are Muslim), North Korea and Venezuela.
The version upheld by the Supreme Court was the policy's third iteration, as two prior attempts by the Trump administration to install similar policies had been blocked in lower courts.
As the policy's detractors deride it as a "Muslim ban" and focus on Trump's tweets and statements that appear to show his bias against Islam, the stories of non-Muslim citizens from the affected countries - like Ghorbanpour - are getting lost in the shuffle.
Before the ban
Ghorbanpour has seen his parents twice since graduating in 2012 from the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education - the "underground" university created by and for Baha'is since they are not allowed to attend regular universities in Iran - and fleeing the country shortly thereafter. He went back to his home country three years ago, but the experience filled him with anxiety that nearly overrode his desire to visit his family again.
At any time, the Iranian government could have accused him of being an American spy and imprisoned him based solely on his religion, he said. That didn't happen, but to avoid risking his freedom again just to see his loved ones, Ghorbanpour encouraged his parents to apply for a tourist visa so they could come to him instead.
The American government rejected his parents' visa applications for a variety of reasons, most significantly over concern his parents would arrive in the U.S. and refuse to return to the country that was actively persecuting them, Ghorbanpour said. That decision, which came before Trump took office, was not wholly unexpected.
"Even back in the Obama times, there was an extremely difficult vetting system in place for people of those countries to come visit their children using a tourist visa," Ghorbanpour said.
With his parents stuck in Iran, he visited his home country again in 2017, facing the same possibility of imprisonment if the wrong people caught wind of his return. After that trip, Ghorbanpour, who also has a brother living in the U.S. and a sister in Canada, vowed never to come back to Iran. After all, he was in the process of becoming an American citizen, and after attaining citizenship he could petition the government to issue his parents a green card for permanent residency.
Now, his carefully constructed plan is being thrown into disarray, as all immigration from Iran has been blocked and the only way his parents can enter the country is on a student or exchange visitor visa - neither of which would be approved just so they could attend a graduation ceremony.
"I escaped discrimination in Iran, prejudice against other religions in Iran, and moved to the States for a better future," Ghorbanpour said, visibly fighting back emotion. "I worked hard. I got an advanced degree in engineering and tried to contribute to this country, and now this (travel ban) has been affecting my family hugely and that is really tough."
"A very unclear process"
The travel ban doesn't eliminate all hope for reunification on graduation day, as it allows for the issuance of waivers on a case-by-case basis if applicants meet all of the following criteria:
- denying their entry would cause them undue hardship;
- their entry would not pose a national security threat; and
- their entry would be in the national interest.
Although the Supreme Court's ruling heavily leaned on the possibility for exemptions as evidence of the travel ban's objectivity, only 2 percent of waiver applications were approved from December 2017 through April 2018, according to a Reuters report. The State Department also acknowledged that an approved waiver does not mean the applicant has actually received a visa to travel to the U.S., the Washington Post reported in May.
"The so-called waiver system appears to be merely window dressing to cover the real intent of preventing the entry of people on the basis of national origin and religion into the U.S.," Babak Yousefzadeh, president of the Iranian American Bar Association, said in a statement. "The overwhelming number of waiver rejections, including those for people who satisfy the conditions identified in the travel ban itself, leads to the conclusion that a near-complete travel ban remains in effect."
Ghorbanpour said the existence of a waiver process isn't enough to keep him hopeful that his parents will be with him when he graduates. They have not yet applied for a waiver; he said the case-by-case nature of the process and a lack of clear guidance about what the phrases "undue hardship," "national security" and "national interest" actually mean makes it hard to guess if an application would have any shot of being approved.
American officials "are not clarifying who's getting (the waivers), who's not, what are the criteria; it's a very unclear process," Ghorbanpour said. "With the statistics available today, there is no reasonable chance of applying for and receiving a visa."
He isn't alone in his belief that the criteria for waiver approval are far too vague; a class-action lawsuit was filed in California on July 29 asking the Trump administration to explicitly detail what goes into the waiver approval process.
As yet another legal challenge to the travel ban works its way through the court system, the likelihood that his parents step onto American soil before he graduates lessens with each passing day. His parents already missed his brother's graduation from the University of California, Irvine earlier this year, and with his own studies expected to be finished by the spring of 2019, it may already be too late for Ghorbanpour and his parents to pull it all together.
After a journey that forced him into an underground university and took him halfway across the world and back multiple times, after facing government-backed efforts to limit his educational opportunities and still ending up as a doctoral candidate, Ghorbanpour said he's "heartbroken" that unless things change quickly, his parents won't get to share in a moment that's been decades in the making.
"That’s my parents dream, to be able to come here, visit me and be at my graduation," Ghorbanpour said. "That’s been their dream forever."
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