Azar Rahimi, a 32-year-old software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle, has only gone back to Iran once since arriving in the U.S. to complete her Ph.D. seven years ago. “I’m allowed to work here, but every time I leave I have to apply for a new visa,” Rahimi explains. “When I went home in 2014 it took two months to get back.”
So Rahimi was ecstatic when she recently got her advance parole document, which, while she awaits her green card, would finally allow her to travel without worry between her home country and her adopted country. It came none too soon. Back in Iran, Rahimi’s 37-year-old sister was recently diagnosed with end-stage liver disease. After several surgeries, she has started a series of chemotherapy treatments, and Rahimi rushed to make plans to be at her side.
“She’s been hospitalized for the last few weeks and I call her almost every day to get an update on her situation,” says Rahimi. “I got the ticket last week to fly on February 4 and told my manager I was going—then the next day the news came out.” That news was the leaked draft of President Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iran, from entering the United States. While much of the furor surrounding the order has been about refugees stopped from entering the U.S., it also means citizens of those seven countries who already legally live and work in the U.S. and have families here—an estimated half-a-million people—can be denied reentry if they leave the U.S. for any reason.
Solmaz Sharif, a journalist and the founder of New York Persian Cultural Center, was catching opening night of the Oscar-nominated Iranian film “The Salesman” (the visa ban will reportedly keep the movie’s director, Asghar Farhadi, from attending the Oscars) when news broke that Trump’s executive order was now a reality. Sharif’s thoughts immediately turned to her mother, who moved to the U.S. on a green card in October, but earlier this month flew back to Iran to celebrate the Persian New Year. It is now unclear if she will be allowed to return.
“We didn’t think this could happen,” Sharif, who is a U.S. citizen, said by phone on Saturday. “When the draft came out, I sought advice from my lawyer. He said it would take a couple months” to take effect and that “‘If we see Trump is serious, everyone will come back.’ A couple months turned out to be two days. We just talked this morning to my mom, who is in shock. We don’t really know what happens now—she’s basically in limbo.”
She’s far from the only one. Iranian citizens travel to the U.S. more than those of any of the other six countries included in the ban. Jamal Abdi, executive director of Iranian-American advocacy group NIAC Action, said that since Friday night, “I have heard of people who have been detained but then let in, people who have been pulled off flights, and people who have been turned away when they get here. It’s complete chaos.”
Online activists launched a Google form Friday on which Iranians and others trying to reenter the U.S. can share their experiences; with over 250 entries so far there is little detectable pattern: some have been let in with no problem, others were detained for extensive questioning, some barred from boarding, still others sent back after arrival.
On Saturday afternoon a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the law applies even to permanent residents; later in the day there were reports that green card holders will be able to travel but only if they first obtain special waivers. There is still no clarification on how the order was meant to apply to those already in transit. Considering reports that Trump’s White House did not consult federal agencies such as DHS before issuing executive orders this week, it seems likely his team may not have considered what would happen to people en route when the order was issued. (After an emergency lawsuit led by the ACLU, a judge ruled on Saturday night that valid visa holders cannot be deported, although many are still being detained at airports.) Then on Sunday White House chief of staff Reince Preibus asserted the ban would not affect green card holders moving forward but hardly cleared things up by adding that border agents would have “discretionary authority.”
“It’s complete disarray,” said Abdi. “Nobody knows what they’re supposed to be doing. The idea that this makes anybody any safer is complete nonsense.”
Ehsan Hosseini is a case in point. The 35-year-old completed a post-doc at MIT then launched a startup that makes laser chips for self-driving cars. “Yesterday, I didn’t think this would involve me,” he said in an interview Saturday. A Tehran-born green card holder who hopes to get his U.S. citizenship in a few years, Hosseini was looking forward to an all-too-rare visit from his mother this year, but that now seems unlikely. He adds that his girlfriend, an Iranian citizen who lives here but does not have a green card, is now contemplating a move to Europe, while a cousin who won the green card lottery was set to come stay with him in Massachusetts this week, but “he doesn’t know if he should get on the plane or not.”
Regardless of whether the rules become clearer in the coming days, Hosseini says he’s unlikely to board an international flight himself until he has citizenship papers in hand. He also laments that “for a lot of people—scientists and engineers and others who have been thinking about making a life and staying here—alternatives in Europe and Canada are going to become a lot more prominent.”
Rahimi, the Microsoft engineer who has since canceled her trip to visit her ailing sister, agrees. “I love Seattle and things were going well. I have a job, it seemed like I was settling down and the green card process was going through. But honestly I’m not so sure now. This week I’ve been doing research on immigration to other countries.”
“Iranian-Americans have proved time after time that they are one of the most honorable communities in America,” says Sharif, the journalist and founder of the New York Persian Cultural Center. “We have tons of business owners, doctors, lawyers—people who create jobs and save lives. It’s just heartbreaking and unbelievable. Everyone around me, we believe so much in American values and democracy—we didn’t think this could really happen.”