WASHINGTON – Marjan Ehsassi is American by choice – and, until recently, was fiercely proud of it.
Born in Geneva to an Iranian diplomat who served under the shah, she grew up in Iran until the revolution made life there inhospitable for her family. She married an American, has two American children, became an American citizen and has lived in this country for more than 17 years. She’s worked for the National Democratic Institute, spreading American values across the globe.
“Washington is my home, my children were born in this city, and I absolutely consider myself an American,” she told me. “I feel a huge amount of loyalty to this country.”
But now she is discovering, painfully, that the feeling isn’t reciprocal. Though non-practicing, she is Muslim-born, and she is shaken by Donald Trump’s talk of forcing Muslim Americans to register and banning Muslims from entering the United States.
Far from rejecting Trump, Americans are flocking to him (41 percent of Republicans support him in a nationwide poll released Monday) and following his xenophobia. Last week, the House passed, by an overwhelming majority, legislation that would discriminate against visitors to the United States based on their ancestry – including European citizens who by birth also have citizenship from Iran or other Middle Eastern countries.
The Trump phenomenon, Ehsassi says, has made Iranian Americans rethink their place. “Every single one of us is worrying we may have to move to Canada, or have to figure out a way to leave the country. In this moment it doesn’t feel like this country can belong to me or my children,” she said. “Many of us felt once we had children, once we really, really, really established our roots in this country, once we worked hard, once we did well, once we contributed, once our children started contributing, we truly would be considered American. But it doesn’t feel that way now.”
Anti-Muslim discrimination is rising in this season of Trump. In part, this is because six in 10 Americans don’t know a single Muslim. The lack of familiarity makes them more susceptible to anti-Muslim talk. I wish those six in 10 Americans could meet my friend Marjan.
Her family suffered in Iran after the Islamic revolution (her grandfather was imprisoned), and she left in the mid-1980s for the University of Toronto and law school at McGill. She moved to the United States and, now 48, speaks English with only a trace of an accent. When she isn’t traveling the world to promote democracy, she’s at home in suburban Chevy Chase, Md., doing the rounds of kids’ sports and activities. Her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son go to school with my daughter, and I’ve known her family for seven years. She’s about as much of a national-security risk as Madeleine Albright.
“I’m a Middle Eastern woman,” she said, but “this is my country.”
That’s why she’s so stunned by what the House did last week and what the Senate is poised to do this week, with the Obama administration’s backing. In response to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks by Islamic State sympathizers, Congress is tightening visa requirements for people with ties to Syria and Iraq (where the Islamic State is) who visit America from Europe. But the lawmakers also cracked down on visitors with ties to Iran and Sudan (where the Islamic State isn’t) and included European nationals who have dual citizenship with any of the four countries.
For Ehsassi, this means her son’s godmother, a British citizen, and her godson and her cousins in Paris, French citizens, won’t be able to visit the United States visa-free as other British and French do, because of their dual Iranian citizenships. And European countries could retaliate, forcing people such as Ehsassi to get visas before traveling to Europe while other Americans travel visa-free.
Ehsassi is sympathetic to the security aims of the bill. She said that she’s “concerned about how the Iranian government is engaging in the region” and that “we need to think of ways to protect ourselves” at home. But “what this proposed language would do is create two tiers of citizens,” she said. Add to that the vitriol Trump has encouraged, and Ehsassi feels as if “I don’t know this country. I feel like I don’t belong.”
Maybe Americans will reject Trump the way the French just rejected Marine Le Pen’s National Front? Ehsassi paused. “I’m worried that we won’t,” she said. “This has definitely triggered a lot more hate vis-a-vis the ‘other,’ and the ‘other’ happens to be Muslims. I’m not sure that’s going away.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.