When Anahita Avestaei’s father died in Iran earlier this month, she couldn’t attend his funeral. Blacklisted from returning to Iran due to her work with a human rights NGO, the 30-year old had been granted asylum in the United States two years after arriving as a law student in 2010. Unable to go home after her father’s death, she made plans to meet with her mother in a third country in the coming weeks — in the hopes of at least mourning together.
But now, thanks to President Trump’s executive order restricting the travel rights of Iranian nationals and others, those plans have been cancelled. Not only will she be unable to meet her mother, her future in the United States is being called into question by the major policy changes being enacted by the Trump administration.
Although Avestaei has a green card, she is now unable to travel outside the United States for fear of being barred from reentry. “I thought I was going to see my mom soon, but now it can’t happen,” Avestaei told me. “I really wish would not wish this feeling on anyone. To lose a family member while you are abroad and can’t come home. You feel guilty, as though you abandoned your family.”
Avestaei is just one of countless ordinary people whose lives have been upended by Trump’s recent actions. Despite widespread public outcry, more changes may be one the way. Trump’s executive order specifically targets nationals of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. But in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that the order could expand in the near future, hinting that countries like Egypt and Pakistan may be targeted as well.
Priebus gave conflicting information in his interview about the impact on green card holders currently residing in the United States. A Department of Homeland Security statement earlier this weekend said that the measures would apply to green cards. But a statement issued later in the day by DHS Secretary John Kelley said that all lawful permanent residents should be granted the ability to enter the country, absent “significant derogatory information.” Amid widespread fear and confusion, many immigration attorneys have been advising clients who are not U.S. citizens to avoid traveling outside the country.
Iranian nationals in the United States — due to their precarious political situation and large diaspora — are among the groups most impacted by these new measures. The Iranian diaspora in the United States numbers in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom arrived after the 1979 revolution in that country. Partly as a consequence of geopolitical tensions, the U.S. has long been a haven for Iranian dissidents and activists fleeing their government.
But following Trump’s exclusion order, the position of vulnerable Iranians living in the U.S. has rapidly deteriorated. Unable to travel outside the country and facing the possibility of having their green cards annulled in the future, people like Avestaei have suddenly been trapped in a dangerous legal gray zone.
Part of the problem has been the chaos and confusion with which the executive orders have been issued. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) criticized the administration for repeatedly changing its messaging on the facts surrounding the executive order. “This is really banana-republic style,” Parsi said. “It was already extremely difficult for Iranians to get into the United States.”
Trump’s executive order also extends to dual-nationals of other countries, with the result that even prominent Western political figures with roots in Iran and other targeted countries have now found themselves barred from entry.
Due to the huge number of Iranians resident in the United States and their often difficult political relationship with their home country, Parsi said that, “Iranian Americans are affected more than anyone else [by the executive order], almost more than everyone else combined.”
On its website, NIAC issued a statement calling on the Trump administration to permit a grace period in the executive order to “enable all lawful permanent residents, dual nationals and visa holders from Iran and the other targeted countries to return to the United States to reunite with their families and return to their daily lives.”
But despite massive protests and legal challenges, the administration has signaled that it will fight efforts to halt the ban, while working to expand it.
For Anahita Avestaei, Trump’s executive order has called into question the new life she has been trying to build in the United States upon receiving asylum here. After originally arriving here to complete her legal studies, she was unexpectedly banished from returning to Iran after running afoul of the government by volunteering with a human rights group in the United States. Now she faces a future where she is both endangered in Iran and unwelcome in the U.S.
“Its not easy to leave your home, to leave your family, your neighbors, your cat. I never expected that I would have to leave them and make a new life here, but I have been trying,” she told me. “But now to have the country that you’re wishing to be your new home do everything it can to tell you that you are not welcome, that you’re not wanted here, it is too emotionally draining.”
“I can never feel safe anymore and it feels terrible. It is the worst feeling ever.”