Iranian IRGC or Sepah Immigration Ban: What You Should Know If You Have Completed Mandatory Military Service in IRGC or Sepah
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also known as Sepah, was designated as a terrorist organization by President Trump in April 2019. This designation carries serious immigration repercussions for Iranian males who did their mandatory military service with IRGC or Sepah. There are some distinctions and options depending on whether you are applying for a U.S. immigrant visa or nonimmigrant visa and whether you are applying from outside the United States at an embassy abroad or whether you are applying for an immigrant benefit from within the United States, such as adjustment of status or citizenship (N-400/Naturalization). This article discusses obstacles and strategies arising from a case involving an IRGC mandatory service.
The IRGC and Sepah Terrorist Designation: A Brief Background Overview
In April 2019, President Donald Trump designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The IRGC is a branch of Iran's armed forces or military. The designation of the IRGC as an FTO marked the first time that a part of a foreign government was labeled as a terrorist organization. It was part of the Trump Administration's policy of maximum pressure on Iran, stating that the IRGC was responsible for hundreds of American and coalition service members’ deaths and destabilizing activities in the Middle East. By designating the IRGC as an FTO, the US sought to increase economic and political pressure on Iran and to make targeting the group and its members easier with sanctions and other measures.
All Iranian men are required to complete 18 to 24 months of military service when they reach the age of 18. Conscripts are not allowed to choose which branch of the military they enter. The majority of the IRGC's active personnel are conscripts who were forced into military service without a choice whether to serve for IRGC (Sepah) or another brand of the military such as The Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh/AJA).
The IRGC ban is retroactive, meaning that any person who has ever served under the IRGC banner, even prior to the 2019 designation by the Trump Administration, is now subject to the terrorist bar and is ineligible for any U.S. visas. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), individuals from foreign countries who assist a designated terrorist group or possess connections with such an organization specified in the INA face various restrictions and consequences. They are barred from obtaining visas for entry into the United States; they are inadmissible and disqualified from seeking asylum or any other immigration benefits under American law. They could also potentially be deported from the United States.
Immigrant Visa (Green Card) Processing for IRGC or Sepah Military Service Applicants: What to Expect
The IRGC terrorist designation from 2019 is still valid law for which we have seen no changes since its inception. Since taking office in 2021, the Biden Administration has not prioritized addressing this law. In light of this, there have been severe consequences for Iranian male applicants applying for immigrant visas from outside the United States, whether they are applying for a new application or have had an application pending for some time.
Currently, the U.S. embassy policy is to reject/deny any immigrant visa application where the applicant has served in IRGC or Sepah. It does not matter if the applicant had no choice in serving and whether the service was many years ago. If you currently have a case pending at the embassy and your mandatory service was in IRGC, you can take the case forward through the various steps with the strategy that maybe the law will be changed while your case is being processed. However, please note that once the case reaches the decision stage, the U.S. embassy officer cannot approve your case until the terrorist designation is removed or changed in some way, such as a waiver is allowed or an exception is created.
As of the writing of this article, various individuals and organizations are pursuing lawsuits and other avenues to challenge this very generalized and sweeping policy, especially for individuals that had no choice in their mandatory service and if they served before the service was considered a terrorist organization as designated in 2019. For example, on June 23, 2022, a regulation was published by the Secretary of Homeland Security and Secretary of State, which exempted certain individuals who participated in foreign terrorist organizations from inadmissibility to the United States under the Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG). The exemption under this regulation allows otherwise eligible individuals seeking an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa to apply for a waiver from the TRIG bars that previously would make them inadmissible. Individuals who participated in designated or undesignated terrorist organizations must show that they provided insignificant or limited material support to the organization or any member of such organization to be eligible for the exemption. The individual must show he “poses no danger to the safety and security of the United States." However, since the publication of the June 2022 exemption, the U.S. government has stated that the exemption does NOT apply to Iranian nationals that served in IRGC or Sepah. In other words, Iranians are not allowed to use this exemption and waiver process. As a result of this specific exclusion of Iranians from using this legitimate option under immigration policies, there have been lawsuits challenging the government’s uneven implementation of this policy.
We will update this article as we receive updates regarding legal challenges and policy changes related to exemptions, waivers, and options for cases involving mandatory military services, such as IRGC or Sepah.
What Happens to Your Nonimmigrant Visa Case (Temporary Visa Applications) if You’ve Served in IRGC or Sepah?
Unlike immigrant visas, nonimmigrant visas (temporary visa applications) such as tourist visas, student visas, fiancé visas, nonimmigrant work visas, etc., there is actually a waiver option for those who served in IRGC or Sepah. The US Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs considers each visa application on a case-by-case basis for a waiver, taking into account the individual’s circumstances and the information available to them at the time of the application. The Department of Homeland Security may grant a waiver that allows the issuance of a nonimmigrant visa to an individual who would otherwise be deemed ineligible due to their affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. This waiver is granted at the request of the Department of State and depends highly on the case facts and the officer that is evaluating the case. There is no guarantee that if one case is granted a waiver that a similar case will also be granted a waiver. There is no standard process, application, or guidance regarding this waiver option.
In practice, we have seen many denials for nonimmigrant visas. Thus far, we have not heard of the Department of Homeland Security or Department of State granting a waiver request when someone was denied a nonimmigrant visa due to their mandatory service in Sepah or IRGC. This is an evolving area of law as the law is only a few years old, and embassies are adjusting to the practice. Therefore, requesting a waiver whenever possible is important. It is a process with no guarantees or statistics, but it is worth considering as an option for obtaining a nonimmigrant visa and to try to save your case.
NOTE: No equivalent waiver is allowed for individuals seeking an immigrant visa (in other words, seeking a green card or permanent residency). This means that if an individual is considered ineligible for an immigrant visa due to their association with the IRGC or Sepah, their case will be denied. They will not have the option of seeking a waiver until an exception is made or the law is changed.
Can You Apply for Adjustment of Status or Naturalization if You Served in IRGC Mandatory Service?
If you are currently in the United States and are interested in applying for an immigration benefit such as adjustment of status or naturalization (citizenship) and you served in IRGC or Sepah, it is important that you speak with an immigration attorney about your options. Depending on where you live and what immigration benefit you are applying for, there are various strategies. For example, we have seen that an IRGC or Sepah mandatory service that pre-dates 2019 has not been an issue thus far in most (but not all) naturalization cases; however, it can cause issues for adjustment of status cases. There is a narrow exception that is allowed in adjustment of status cases. Depending on your local field office, sometimes Iranian applicants are left in administrative processing (background checks) for months without any resolution when their case involves mandatory service in IRGC or Sepah. In other words, USCIS field offices are inconsistent in approaching IRGC or Sepah service cases. Some officers require additional background checks and eventually approve the case; others let the case drag on until a higher official provides clearance or approval. It is important to speak with an immigration attorney before you apply for any case if you have an IRGC or Sepah issue because a person can technically be deported if involved with what is deemed a terrorist organization.
The immigration ban against Iranians with mandatory military service in IRGC or Sepah is a complex issue with many nuances. If you are unsure whether the ban applies to you or have questions about how to obtain a visa, it’s recommended that you seek the advice of an immigration attorney or other legal expert.
--Najmeh Mahmoudjafari, Esq.
Najmeh is the Founder and Lead Immigration Attorney at ImmigraTrust Law (www.ImmigraTrust.com), an immigration law practice in Orange County, California, representing individual and corporate clients in all 50 U.S. States and internationally. Najmeh can be reached at Najmeh@ImmigraTrust.com.
For more information regarding the ban and other Iranian-related issues, you can see the U.S. virtual Embassy of Iran Frequently Asked Questions Page.
Navigating the Iranian IRGC or Sepah Immigration Ban:
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DISCLAIMER: This article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended and does not constitute legal advice. This article does not create an attorney/client relationship and does not provide an attorney/client privilege. For legal advice about your specific case, please contact an attorney.
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