The Kafkaesque Hell of Being an Iranian Dissident Trying to Come to America

You’d think Team Trump would be welcoming Iran’s activists with open arms. The reality is much more cruel.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The American government has a history of weaponizing immigration policy against its foes. During the Cold War, the government gave special treatment to Cubans fleeing communism who got onto American soil, which helped generate a surge of Cuban immigration in southern Florida. And Frank Lautenberg, the late New Jersey senator, pushed to make it easier for Jewish and Evangelical Christian refugees fleeing former Soviet bloc countries to come to the United States, draining human capital from the former USSR while dealing it a series of propaganda blows.

Don’t expect Donald Trump to carry that torch. While the president and his cabinet have repeatedly praised Iranian protesters, there’s no evidence Trump will show any generosity to dissidents looking to escape the country.

Since the Supreme Court temporarily allowed enforcement of the third version of the president’s travel ban last month, people from eight countries—Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen—have faced a variety of new restrictions on traveling to the U.S. Iranians can only come here if they get a visa and then receive a waiver from the ban at an American consulate or embassy.

But Iranian dissidents looking to flee to the United States shouldn’t be optimistic, according to immigration attorneys dealing with the effects of the ban.

You'd think they would treat [the Iranians] much like we treated dissidents during the Cold War, where we opened our doors to embarrass the Soviet Bloc... But I imagine [this administration] would probably treat them like garbage, like they treat everybody else.

Mahsa Khanbabai, an attorney based in Massachusetts, said she has helped about half a dozen Iranians travel to the United States since the first ban went into effect. The waiver process is a massive hurdle, she said—in part because it isn’t clear who can get them. The ban says people who may face “undue hardship” if they can’t travel to the U.S. may be able to get papers. But it doesn’t explain what “undue hardship” means, and whether the hardship would affect them or their contacts in America.

The White House and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

On Twitter, Trump has been singing the praises of Iranian protesters.

“The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years,” he wrote on Monday. “They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

Just getting to an American consulate to interview for a visa and try to get a waiver is itself a major challenge for Iranians, she said. The U.S. hasn’t had any consulates open in Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. So Iranians looking to travel have to go to an American consulate in a third country—generally Turkey, Armenia, or the United Arab Emirates—to apply for visas and waivers.

The State Department hasn’t told those consulates how exactly the waiver process works, she added, which means there appear to be huge discrepancies between the different consulates. In Armenia, she said, consular officers are particularly uninterested in issuing waivers. And with no guidance from State, would-be travelers and their attorneys hardly know how to make the case for receiving those waivers.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” said Hassan Ahmad, an immigration attorney who has dealt with the fallout of the various versions of the travel ban.

One Iranian client of his received a visa earlier this year, went to an American consulate, was told her visa was rejected because of the travel ban, and then was told she couldn’t apply for a waiver from the ban, Ahmad said.

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There’s no appeals process, he added, and there was nothing he could do for his client.

Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney in Atlanta who helped Soviet dissidents immigrate to the U.S. during the Cold War, said it’s unlikely Trump takes an open-handed approach to Iranian protesters.

“You would think they would treat them much like we treated dissidents during the Cold War, where we opened our doors to bring them in to embarrass the Soviet bloc,” Kuck said. “But this administration is so wildly unpredictable, I would imagine they’d probably treat them like garbage, like they treat everybody else.”