Former Iranian conscripts say they were unfairly banned from US trips

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Two years ago, Leili Ghazi dropped out of biomedical engineering in Iran and jumped at the chance to travel to the United States to start a new life for herself and her parents.

Now the 22-year-old is separated from her family indefinitely because her father was drafted into a branch of the Iranian armed forces more than two decades ago, which the US government years later named…

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Two years ago, Leili Ghazi dropped out of biomedical engineering in Iran and jumped at the chance to travel to the United States to start a new life for herself and her parents.

Now the 22-year-old is indefinitely separated from her family because her father did mandatory military service more than two decades ago as a conscript for a branch of the Iranian armed forces that the US government years later declared a foreign terrorist organization. The designation bans anyone associated with the group from entering the United States, including her father.

“He had office work to do and building plans to work on,” said Ghazi, who has been anxious and depressed since moving to Southern California. She expected her parents to eventually join her, but later learned her father would be forced to stay behind. “He hasn’t taken any action to go to war or anything like that. It wasn’t like that.”

Traveling to the United States has long been a challenge for Iranians, and visa applicants often wait months or years for background checks to be completed. But since the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization in 2019, it has become all but impossible for anyone who has served in the department, even as a conscript and in a non-combat role, to obtain a visa to enter the United States.

Many Iranian-Americans and their families hoped that the Biden administration would change course on the designation so those who served as conscripts could continue to travel. They note that Iranian men are forced to serve if they want to obtain passports to leave the country, have no say in which branch they are assigned to, and mostly do basic tasks like painting or clerical jobs.

But their hopes were dashed when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late April that there were no plans to remove the designation unless there were changes in Iran. He acknowledged in remarks before US lawmakers that draftees have been hit the hardest, while “the people who are the really bad guys have no intention of traveling.”

“There should be exceptions, and right now we don’t have exceptions,” said Ally Bolour, a Los Angeles immigration attorney whose firm has sued over the label’s use. “It’s unfair that the US government should just throw in the towel and lump everyone together. That’s lazy.”

The US has compiled a long list of foreign terrorist organizations dating back to the 1990s, including Hamas and Peru’s Shining Path. But the groups are almost exclusively private militias, not state-run entities like the IRGC that recruit conscripts under the law.

The Secretary of State designates the groups in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury and review by Congress, and may revoke the designation. For example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were listed as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and were delisted in 2021.

Persons who support or provide resources to foreign terrorist organizations who are not US citizens cannot legally enter the country and face deportation. In addition, financial institutions that control funds for these groups must retain ownership of the funds and report them to US authorities.

A US State Department spokesman could not immediately say how many former Iranian draftees had visa applications affected by the designation. The spokesman said applications are considered individually and exceptions can be requested in some cases. The designations “play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are a powerful tool to limit support for terrorist activities and pressure groups to disengage from the terrorism business,” the spokesman said.

However, immigration lawyers said they are taking tons of calls from ex-conscripts dealing with the issue and see no exceptions. Attorney Scott Emerick, who works with Bolour, said he has received hundreds of calls and believes the government can make exceptions for conscripts who have not served voluntarily.

Taher Kameli, a Chicago attorney who has also sued, said he gets calls every day from people asking how the designation is affecting them. He said he doesn’t think the U.S. government could list another country’s military as a foreign terrorist organization, noting that previous governments have also had problems with establishment and, because of the consequences it would entail, of refrain from naming.

“We are not here to say that the IRGC is doing anything right or wrong. We’re just saying the way the labeling is done is wrong,” said Kameli, who represents an Iranian-born, US-trained doctor affected by the rule.

The impact of the designation extends well beyond the United States. Iranians said the US shares data on travelers with countries in Europe and Canada, and they fear they will be denied travel there, too.

Several Iranian-born Canadian citizens said they were subjected to additional screening on previous quick and easy trips across the border. Amir Abolhassani, a 41-year-old engineer, said as a Canadian citizen he had traveled to the United States many times without issue, but he was recently stopped by authorities on a trip to North Carolina where his company wanted to transfer him to a new one Work.

Abolhassani was told he could not go because of his compulsory military service more than a decade ago, which he says consisted of two months of basic training and designing water mains for the branch. He said he was randomly assigned and the service was necessary so he could obtain a passport and leave the country to continue his education.

Now he and his wife are in limbo because they have already sold their house to move but cannot get a visa.

“The worst thing is that they tell you that you are a terrorist,” Abolhassani said. “We got out of this country because we were against their policies, because we were against their behavior and now we’re saying, ‘You belong to this system, you belong to this regime, you are part of the organization that we have listed as a terrorist organization ‘ That is very unfair. This is unbearable.”

The designation also weighs heavily on Iranian citizens who have been living in the United States with green cards for years and want to become American citizens.

Paris Etemadi Scott is the legal director of the PARS Equality Center in San Jose, California, which provides legal and social services to immigrants from Persian-speaking and other countries.

She says she now tells most clients who have served in the competitive industry — or those whose spouses have — to think twice about applying for naturalization because if they’re going to an interview go, they will be faced with a barrage of additional questions and will be forced to sign a lengthy affidavit detailing their long-ago military service.

“We thought this was a Trump thing, but obviously nothing has changed,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t have the stamina to endure this ordeal anymore. We advise you to wait and see.”

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