The change was made just two months after the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) began lobbying the Obama Administration to change the visa policy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the change Friday. Until now, Iranian students, unlike students of most other nationalities, were eligible only for single-entry visas. That meant that any time they left the United States, even to visit Canada or Mexico, they would have to apply for and wait for the issuance of another visa. That not only discouraged visits to Canada or Mexico, it also meant many students felt they could not visit home for fear a new visa would not be issued in time to start the next term.
Iranian students are now eligible for two-year, multiple entry visas. That is still not as good as many others enjoy, which is a multiple entry visa good as long as the holder remains a student.
The new rule does not mean an Iranian must get a new visa after two years if he or she remains in the United States. It means that if the student leaves the United States after two years, he or she will need a new visa before re-entering the United States. But if the student does not leave the United States after two years, that student can remain in the United States for however long he or she remains a student in good standing.
Under the old visa system, the student could stay as long as he or she remained a student but could never visit home without getting a new visa.
Clinton said, “I’ve heard from many Iranian students and Iranian-Americans that you wanted this change. So, I want you to know that we are listening to your concerns. We want more dialogue and more exchange with those of you who are shaping Iran’s future. We want to be able to share with you what we think is great about America. Because, as long as the Iranian government continues to stifle your potential, we will stand with you. We will support your aspirations and your rights. And we will continue to look for new ways to fuel more opportunities for real change in Iran.”
The change applies to F, J and M visas. Students currently holding single-entry visas can only apply for the new multiple-entry visa outside the United States. They will not be upgraded automatically.
Two months ago, NIAC started lobbying for three policy changes that it said would make life easier for many Iranians.
First, it pressed the administration to end the rule under which students from Iran were issued only single-entry visas, whereas citizens of most other countries get multiple entry visas and can visit their homelands as often as they please.
In an article in the online Huffington Post, Jamal Abdi, the NIAC policy director, and Trita Parsi, the organization’s president, said the regime in Tehran pressures students not to study in the West, while the single entry visa only adds pressure to avoid the United States.
They said of changing the visa policy: “There is no better way to convey our friendship with Iran’s youth than to offer an outstretched hand as Iran’s government clenches its fist.”
Second, they urged the elimination of all Internet restrictions. The Obama Administration has allowed Americans to provide technology to Iranians to help them evade many Iranian restrictions on Internet access. But there are still US restrictions. For example, Skype voice and video communication is not available in Iran.
Third, they urged elimination of sanctions that inhibit humanitarian aid. The US lifted the impediments after the 2003 Bam earthquake, but only for a year. Now humanitarian groups must pass through bureaucratic hurdles and get special licenses to operate in Iran. “The president should permanently lift the restrictions that prevent Americans from exporting goodwill to the people of Iran,” Abdi and Parsi wrote.
No action has yet been taken on those last two points.