Immigrants Finding Themselves within America and America In Them

“What we do is not about winning or losing, but about persistence, determination and courage. It is about creating a culture of advocacy.”

Immigrants Finding Themselves within America and America In Them
A protest against Trump’s Muslim ban in front of the Supreme Court. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

I am inspired.  I think of great women in our country who have excelled in their commitment to help others, to make a difference, to live the American Dream—and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those people.

Ginsburg’s father was an immigrant, working as a bookkeeper in New York, while her mother was born just four months after Ginsburg’s grandparents immigrated to this country of opportunity. In just one generation, their daughter became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

The young Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame barriers that seemed insurmountable in that time. Her steadfast determination to seek justice, regardless of gender, race or immigration status provides courage and strength for those who feel defeated.

In Ginsburg’s memory, I want to share two more stories about young immigrant women and their struggles, and what it says about our country—about their struggles to achieve their potential, their American Dream.

“Despite Our Connections To the Community, I Didn’t Fit in Because of My Name and How I Looked.”

The first is of a young Iranian girl growing up in a majority-white former mill town in rural Massachusetts, during the time of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. took the side of the Iraqis. 

Immigrants Finding Themselves within America and America In Them
Mahsa Khanbabai as a child. (Courtesy)

My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. in the early 70s when I was just a baby. The town had predominantly Polish immigrant roots, but we had an amazing mix of physicians from all around the world working at a local community hospital—India, Korea, Argentina, Philippines and Egypt. Pockets of international doctors working in rural or inner city communities often occurs because it’s hard to recruit Americans. My dad was one of those doctors, delivering babies in a small community hospital. 

Despite our connections to the community, I didn’t fit in because of my name and how I looked. I dreaded the first week of school—teachers would call out students’ names to check attendance and there was always an incredibly long pause before mine. Even now, I’ve had my name mispronounced on national TV appearances and I cringe trying to find a way to correct it. We see that happening today: A so-called reporter on Fox mispronounced Kamala Harris’s name repeatedly.

Luckily, when I went to college, I found my roots. Like so many other immigrants before me, I was no longer embarrassed by my heritage—rather, I became proud of it. I was inspired by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice presidential candidate and the daughter of Italian immigrants, so much so that my college roommate and I were ecstatic to campaign for her.  I was moved by her confidence, and her pride in her heritage.

I embraced being Middle Eastern and Muslim. But while I had began expressing my heritage, not everyone was embracing me. I remember my first law school summer job interview: I was wearing a hijab and the interviewer was visibly surprised—her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head when she saw me!

Immigrants Finding Themselves within America and America In Them
Mahsa Khanbabai. (Courtesy)

Several years ago, someone told me, “I’m so glad I got to know you; I always thought Muslims were angry people because of everything I saw on TV.” 

I’m pleased when I’m asked questions about where I come from because it’s an opportunity to tell people about Islam, about Iran and about Muslim women. It’s how I advocate for my community as I am reminded of how RBG methodically took steps to change minds and perspectives, one case at a time.

Immigrants of all backgrounds and faiths are often afraid to speak out—they want to blend in and fly under radar because too often, they are in survival mode. And who can blame them? Every time there is a bombing or attack, I pray: Please, God, let them not claim to be Muslim.

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Immigrants and Muslims are routinely harassed at airports by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The Muslim travel ban nearly caused the death of my U.S. citizen client dying of cancer because the State Department refused to grant a temporary visa to his brother, an Iranian and a 100 percent bone marrow donor match, until we took the story to the press. After that, the U.S. added the Africa travel ban and even a ban on those seeking to come to the U.S. for a green card in certain categories

Immigration attorneys are targeted by CBP, especially those advocating against family separation as seen in those horrible images of kids in cages at the southern border.

But immigration attorneys and advocates will continue to demand change not only in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion. It’s vital to empower those without voices, as well as to advocate for change with our neighbors, our broader community and with our elected officials. It’s bigger than a single political movement—it’s about education and dialogue.

Most importantly, it’s also about changing the mood in our country. We have seen changes come to fruition in the past—the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement all made a significant differences. Even today we are seeing change happen through Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the fight against Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, those speaking out for Palestinian statehood and those fighting against the methodical eradication of Muslim Uighers in China.

What we do is not about winning or losing, but about persistence, determination and courage. It is about creating a culture of advocacy. We should not see ourselves as isolated in this universal struggle against oppression, nor should we rely purely on courts to challenge injustice. 

It’s about a greater struggle and it’s what gives meaning to our lives, and that is fundamentally more important than winning or losing one battle. This is what we as lawyers do, especially those who, like Justice Ginsburg, seek a broader change in perspective.

Legal Battles Against the Trump Administration’s Immigration Policies

The second story I want to share tragically highlights the tension between winning a legal battle versus winning the war of public opinion. 

A 14-year-old Syrian girl’s father was captured by ISIS after their town was taken over. He was tortured, but finally let go after paying a bribe. However, their troubles didn’t end there: They realized they would need to leave their town, and fled to refugee camps on the Turkish border.

While heating bath water for her younger siblings, the kerosene the young girl used caught on fire, burning over 50 percent of her body. Her father raced her to Turkey for emergency medical treatment and they soon resettled in Germany as refugees. She had a series of surgeries to reconstruct her face, her hands and more.

Unfortunately, it’s not the same level of treatment she could get at Shriners Burn Center in Boston, but her visa application was denied. The grounds?  Material support of a terrorist organization—those bribes they paid to ISIS to release her father.

I’m losing the battle on her case. I don’t see this administration changing the definition of “material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” 

Nevertheless, I’ll continue to advocate for her, praying she can come here for desperately needed burn treatment. But I know this case is but one in a bigger struggle: advocating not only for a better understanding of Muslims or more just immigration laws, but for what is right and fair, even if it’s not popular. 

That is what I found within me—within the American Dream. 

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Attorney Mahsa Khanbabai is an elected director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Board of Governors and co-chair of the AILA Afghan Taskforce. She has been in private practice for over 20 years. She represents corporate, educational and individual clients throughout the U.S. and abroad on immigration matters.