‘Reagan’s America does not hate foreigners. It just doesn’t care for them,’ I had heard. I wanted to see for myself, and so I spent time in the Immigration Court, thirteen floors up at Federal Plaza in New York, and watched the machinery of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at work. Scattered about an oblong space with no windows, the supplicants were jammed into rows of school desks, to keep them feeling suitably small, and there they waited to be called. And waited; and went on waiting.
Ali Akbar came from Iran. His father had been a colonel under the Shah, a professional pro-American, and when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he was imprisoned and tortured, his property was confiscated, and all his family were deemed public enemies. Ali Akbar himself was jailed three times for crimes never named, then press-ganged into the army and dispatched to the borderlands, there to wage Holy War on Iraq and expiate his sins through martyrdom: ‘I was,’ he told me, ‘unglad.’
So he fled. With his wife and young son, he escaped to Turkey. They had neither papers nor travel permits, and the Turks refused them shelter. Ten thousand dollars, smuggled out to them from Iran, bought three forged Spanish passports and airline tickets to Montreal, but their flight developed engine trouble and was forced to land at JFK in New York. There, in December 1986, they asked for political asylum. The request was denied.