During times of military conflict, it’s the values we care about most that face the hardest tests. It becomes tempting to let our political freedoms and our respect for pluralism take a back seat to ethnic and religious-based discrimination, denial of civil liberties and suspension of our rights.
That’s exactly what appears to have happened on Jan. 4. Scores of people — most of them Americans of Iranian descent or Iranians with green cards — had their passports held and some travelers were held for as long as 11 hours as they tried to come back to the U.S. from Canada through the Blaine border crossing.
One of these families is the Monavaris of Sammamish.
Parisa and Vahid Monavari are no strangers to the vagaries of U.S. security policies toward Iranian Americans.
Vahid Monavari, a tech worker, and Parisa Monavari, an educator, have endured a series of indignities as Iranian Americans over the 15 years they have lived in the U.S.
Veterans of George W. Bush’s 2002 War on Terror “special registration” system, the Monavaris had to undergo frequent fingerprinting and photographing and were questioned by immigration officials. Three years ago, their effort to reunite with Vahid Monavari’s Iranian parents was threatened by Trump’s travel ban on mostly Muslim countries. But when the Monavaris became U.S. citizens in 2010, they thought their citizenship would at least allow them to travel like all other Americans.
Yet after returning from a ski trip to Whistler on Jan. 4, the couple and their two sons discovered that while they were all U.S. citizens, they were not going to be treated as such. The Monavaris were held for four hours at the border, and subjected to additional screening that included detailed questions about Vahid Monavari’s family’s military service in Iran, social media accounts, individual family members and much more. Vahid Monavari said the questioning was like going through the immigration process over again.
Vahid Monavari said this border experience was much more disheartening than during the special registration period because now they were U.S. citizens. He immediately thought about World War II, when 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during the war, simply based on their ethnic background.
Citizens, yes — but in that case and this one, second-class citizens.
Parisa Monavari asked, “What is the difference between here or a country that … belittles their people or doesn’t [have] respect for their citizens? … I feel belittled because of my background. Is that what has to haunt me over and over again?”
I’m not surprised that an administration whose leader uses the term “shithole countries” to describe nonwhite parts of the world with proud histories and people, and praises racial profiling by allies, would not see any problem with detaining Americans en masse due to their country of origin. Particularly if that country is nonwhite and predominantly Muslim.
But according to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), holding U.S. citizens and green-card holders due solely to their ethnic background is “completely inappropriate.” You can ask U.S. citizens — naturalized and U.S.-born — for citizenship documents and what they are bringing into the country, but you cannot discriminate against them. Further, the Supreme Court ruled the Border Patrol could not stop people at or near the border because of their ethnic background.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flatly denied that “detentions” of Iranian Americans took place, but there were numerous firsthand accounts, and on Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office announced it would open an inquiry into the incident. All of this against the backdrop of the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, retaliatory Iranian missile strikes against U.S. bases, and the accidental and tragic downing by Iran of a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people.
In these situations, we often like to say, “This is not who we are.” The uncomfortable truth is too often this is exactly who we are and have been, especially in times of war and conflict.
Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Patriot Act was rushed into law after 9/11 (leading to mass arrests of immigrants) and the Trump administration implemented a ban on entry for mostly Muslim countries in 2017.
Sowing fear of the “other” is seductive and effective, which is why despots throughout history have employed it to achieve their aims. Hate crimes and intimidation of religious and ethnic minorities often spike after demonizing rhetoric is used by politicians.
So instead of saying “This is not who we are,” it would be better to ask, “Who do we want to be?” Instead of fostering suspicion of our neighbors, could we stretch out our hands to each other in peace? Break bread, find common ground and understand each other better?
We can start by all saying no to the slippery slope of race and religious-based discrimination, wherever and against whoever it rears its ugly head, in our communities and by our government.