A Citizen, Until Dr. Sobhani Wasn’t

If anyone other than the government had sat on its dirty hands for 61 years, they would be laughed out of court. But when it’s the government, there’s no court and medical doctor Siavash Sobhani isn’t doing any laughing. Having been born here, and living here his entire life, and becoming a doctor, a taxpayer and a member of the community, he was informed by the United States that he was no longer a citizen. Dr. (was he still allowed to practice as a doctor?) Siavash Sobhani was stateless.

As he tells it, when he sent in an application for a new passport in February, he had no reason to expect he’d face any difficulties. He had renewed his passport several times previously without problems. This time, it was set to expire in June, and he wanted to make sure he had a valid one in hand before his family took a trip in July.

But he did not receive a new passport. Instead, at the age of 61, he lost what he had held since he was an infant: U.S. citizenship.

The explanation was that he was the child of an Iranian diplomat, which means that he, too, had derivative diplomatic immunity. That meant that was not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and so did not become a citizen by virtue of having been born in the United States. And that is, indeed, the law.

“This was a shock to me,” said Sobhani, who specializes in internal medicine. “I’m a doctor. I’ve been here all my life. I’ve paid my taxes. I’ve voted for presidents. I’ve served my community in Northern Virginia. During covid, I was at work, putting myself at risk, putting my family at risk. So when you’re told after 61 years, ‘Oh there was a mistake, you’re no longer a U.S. citizen,’ it’s really, really shocking.”

All this being true doesn’t change what the law is, but it does reflect the absurdity of the US figuring out 61 years later that it screw up in the first place. How that was figure out, and why anybody would bother to check, remains a curiosity. Ordinarily, a passport renewal for a person who has held a United States passport for decades wouldn’t give rise to suspicion. It’s routine and after a quick check of the boxes, out goes a new passport with a blithe, “Have a nice day, fellow American.” Just not this time.

Sobhani was hesitant to speak publicly about his situation. He has applied for permanent residence, as instructed, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might upset government officials who hold his fate in their hands. But he also knows how slowly the country’s immigration system can move, and he worries that he could wait in limbo for years if top officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) don’t hear about his case and agree to help him. He said he has already spent more than $40,000 on legal fees and still doesn’t know when his case might be resolved.

“I’m waiting for an interview, but does that mean I wait another year for an interview?” he said. “Then another three years for the next step? Then another 10 years before I can travel outside of the country?”

Just wait until he finds out that he has to take the citizenship test, asking questions that few if any natural born citizens are capable of answering. But some official grocery clerk at Immigration did his job too well.

“As a member of your parent’s household at the time of your birth, you also enjoyed full diplomatic immunity from the jurisdiction of the United States,” reads the letter. “As such, you were born not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Therefore, you did not acquire U.S. citizenship at birth.”

“But I did,” Sobhani said as he read that last line aloud. “They gave it me.”

They also reconfirmed he was a citizen over and over again throughout his life, every time his passport was renewed.

One would have good reason to expect that the United States would acknowledge that since it made the mistake, and then repeated it over and over, the government would leave Dr. Sobhani alone, thanking him for his tax payments, not to mention care as a physician during the pandemic, and putting the issue to rest. But the government has rules, and once the rules are implicated, they must be enforced by every grocery clerk with a sharp pencil.

This situation would seem one where someone, whether his representative in Congress or a human being in Immigration, would take action to relieve the absurdity of the government stripping Sobhani of citizenship in the 61st year of his life. As he notes, the task of re-becoming a citizen is onerous and time-consuming. He may not live long enough to accomplish it, and more to the point, he will be a man without a country until then.

Had the United States made its position clear when he was an infant, that would be one thing. It was, and is, the law. But after 61 years, even the government shouldn’t be able to pull this off. At some point, even a government has to admit it screwed up and take the weight of its own error rather than sloughing it off on a physician who did nothing worse than be a good American.

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