Fighting the Visa Ban, PAAIA Takes the Trump Administration to Court

By Peyman Pejman

The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., was one of four groups involved in a recent lawsuit challenging the new U.S. administration’s travel ban against citizens of seven countries including Iran. The ban has now been put on ice thanks to a ruling by the Federal Appeals 9th Circuit Court.

The lawsuit claims that the ban adversely affects Iranian-Americans on the basis of nationality and ancestry. In an interview with Kayhan London, PAAIA’s Executive Director, Dr. Leila Golestaneh Austin, explained PAAIA‘s involvement in the lawsuit and the organization’s broader aims.

What was PAAIA’s involvement in the lawsuit and how did it come about?

The day after the Executive Order was signed, one of our members called me and said, ‘There is an Iranian-American Civil Rights lawyer [Cyrus Mehri] who thinks we have a case in this area.’ I spoke with him directly. He wanted to gather Iranian-American organizations so we could move forward with potential legal action. I helped him get in touch with an immigration lawyer and brought together a coalition of Iranian-American organizations to meet and discuss this potential litigation.

Two days after [the Executive Order was signed], we all met to see how we could approach this. Several of the organizations are legal organizations and have direct expertise. We decided who was going to do what in terms of research and preparation.

I have to say that in the two years that I have been with PAAIA, this is one of the first times that we have united as a community. It is a good thing on many levels.

What did you initially want to achieve, and what do you want now in the light of the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court?

Our goal is to stop the ban and to make sure that courts are aware of this huge discriminatory act against us as a community and all people of Iranian descent. We are the most impacted [of the seven countries concerned by the travel ban]. Despite the [9th Circuit Court] decision, we still think we have a case.

This is a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of all people of Iranian descent. We want to stop it permanently. We want to talk about how illogical it is in terms of national security, and how it is affecting American families whose Iranian relatives will not be able to visit, or, for example, [travel] here for emergency medical care.  The lawsuit talks about how much our community has given back to America, how much we are part of the social fabric of America. We have people who serve in the government, military, education services, science, and technology. That’s what PAAIA has contributed in terms of building the narrative of who we are. We are not a political organization.
We also want to bring in the narrative of how people have been affected. Iranian visa holders and immigrants are extremely vetted already.

How did you choose your partners in this lawsuit from among the myriad of Iranian-America organizations?

We focused on the four most prominent organizations that either deal with legal or advocacy issues on behalf of Iranian-Americans, or deal with policy issues. There are several other smaller organizations that don’t deal with policy or advocacy issues. We have cultural organizations, medical associations, etc. They were not as directly relevant.

What were PAAIA’s goals when you joined, and how have they changed over time?

PAAIA started in 2007, and it tried to bring some representation to the community before U.S. policymakers and the American public. The organization was dedicated to the goals of community building, image building, and influence building.

PAAIA also administers an affiliated political action committee (PAC) that contributes to the election of Iranian-American candidates to public office and [backs] American candidates who support our interests.

In 2014, we refocused our mission to include the three pillars of bridge building, influence building and leadership building. We work to foster greater understanding between the people of Iran and the United States, expand opportunities for the active participation of Iranian-Americans in the democratic process, and provide opportunities for advancement for the next generation.

PAAIA also has a by-invitation-only membership through the IA-100, which is our charitable organization. What we are trying to do is to organize a network of distinguished Iranian-Americans who have achieved a lot of success in their respective fields, to capture that success, and to pool resources and connections that the group has in order to increase our political voice.

The logic behind this approach is that as a community, we have small numbers to be able to launch effective grassroots campaigns, and need to cultivate a leadership to increase that voice. We commend every organization that tries to do grassroots work, but we think we need to complement it.

Our membership follows a quiet, behind-the-scenes approach to policymakers. Several members have direct connections with lawmakers and can reach out on a personal basis. We try to pool all of these resources to build our influence, with the goal of protecting and advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community.

The Iranian-American community is very diverse cultural, politically, and economically. How can you ensure that you represent the community as a whole and not just a selective segment of it?

We actually try to be as objective as possible – to be the credible voice of the community. The way we do that is through a scientific annual survey of Iranian-Americans, done by Zogby Research. We map our policies and advocacy efforts based on the result of those surveys.

Another thing which is not easy but of which we are proud is that we are a bipartisan organization and reach out to lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. When it comes to influencing legislation in Washington, D.C., it is much more effective when you have influence across party lines. We are an American organization. Our statements are on behalf of Iranian-Americans. We know from our surveys that the Iranian-American community wants peaceful resolution of conflict between the United States and Iran, for example, so we support diplomatic efforts such as the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

Is PAAIA working on specific programs or initiatives?

Yes, we have several other programs. One of the programs that is imminent is a public service fellowship for young Iranian-American youth to get involved in government, policy and public service in general.

Some of our other efforts include a Nowruz celebration on Capitol Hill for all lawmakers and their staff to learn more about our community and interests.

We also publish reports on specific legislation that affects the Iranian-American community, and hold networking events for our membership to strategize on how to raise the voice of the Iranian-American community.

The 2016 survey, carried out by the Zogby group, was based on reaching 400 Iranian-Americans around the country. The report said, “Samples are randomly drawn from purchased telephone Iranian surname lists.” It is not clear how geographically representative the samples were, and in how many or which states the respondents resided.