Bush Counterterrorism Prosecutor: ‘I Prosecuted Terrorists And Now My Family Can’t Come To America’

By Javad Khazaeli for The New York Times

In 1977, when I was 2 years old, my family and I moved from Iran to America so that my father could pursue his doctorate in chemistry at Michigan State University. Two years later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power and Iran was no longer the country my family knew. We stayed in the United States, becoming permanent residents and eventually citizens by 1999. My parents were raised Muslim but they stopped practicing after leaving Iran, so our household was secular.

In many ways, my family was the picture of assimilation. We lived in Edwardsville, Ill., and my father taught chemistry at the local university. My mother opened a tailoring shop. I played tennis, joined a fraternity at the University of Illinois and married my wife in a Catholic church. My sister was in the National Honor Society, and my brother was on the high school football team and played bass in punk bands. Today, he is a corporate chef who hires and supervises hundreds of American workers, and she is a local prosecutor specializing in crimes against children.

None of these accomplishments, however, have shielded us from the indiscriminate damage of President Trump’s travel ban, which my mother is challenging as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and partner organizations.

In December 2016, my family received the devastating news that my father’s liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that was first diagnosed in 2014, had returned. His prognosis was terminal. We needed family more than ever during that time. Fortunately, my aunt who lives in Iran had plans to travel here for my sister’s wedding, so she offered to stay for a month or so to support my mother. (They are sisters, and my aunt knows best how to help my mom.) But on Jan. 27, President Trump issued an executive order that revoked visas from Iranians, as well as from citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries.

To this day, my aunt has not been able to get her visa, even though she has passed background checks twice. After courts stopped the first two versions of Mr. Trump’s ban, he issued a third on Sept. 24. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court dismissed the last remaining appeal in a pair of cases opposing the second ban, and lawyers are challenging the third version, which is even worse. If implemented, all of our relatives will be permanently barred from visiting us here. I was just with my father in the hospital, and such naked bias, from a country he loves and has raised his family in, deeply hurts him.

As a former federal counterterrorism prosecutor, I know the importance of protecting America’s national security. For nearly a decade, mostly during the George W. Bush administration, I worked at the Department of Homeland Security to identify and neutralize threats to America. I flew across the country, litigating immigration cases against people accused of terrorism, terrorism fund-raising and espionage. When I appeared in court, I often used my full name, Javad Mohammed Khazaeli. I wanted everyone to know that terrorist extremists did not speak for me nor for a vast majority of Muslims.

I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with special agents, analysts and other prosecutors using targeted, data-based enforcement. We tore apart files looking for information that we could use to make our cases. Because of this, we were very effective. In contrast, President Trump’s Muslim ban ignores data and facts, relying instead on Islamophobia. I know his ban won’t make our country safer. According to the Cato Institute, from 1975 to 2016, not a single American has been killed on United States soil by terrorists from any of the countries singled out for the third ban.

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, anti-Muslim discrimination was real. My brother was harassed at a record shop because he looked Middle Eastern. I was enraged that the acts of a small number of violent extremists would be imputed to my family. But President Bush went to great lengths to differentiate between “a radical network of terrorists” and the rest of the Muslim world. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” he said in a speech on Sept. 20, 2001. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”

By contrast, today we have a president who has fanned the flames of anti-Muslim discrimination. “Islam hates us,” he said in an interview with CNN. So perhaps it is no surprise that six months ago, for the first time in the more than 30 years that my mother has owned her business, she was accosted by a customer demanding to know her religion.

While the administration relentlessly pursues this senseless ban, my family and I will continue to hold our heads high and fight for the values we know to be true of the United States — freedom of religion, protection against discrimination, and the belief that people should be judged by their characters and deeds, rather than by the countries they come from.

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