From Iran, With Persistence
By Joel P. Engardio
Iranian-American Nima Rahimi wore sunglasses the morning in June when the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban targeting Iran and several other Muslim countries.
Rahimi — a San Francisco immigrant rights commissioner — had to get through a press conference he organized on the steps of City Hall with other civil rights leaders. He wasn’t sure he could do it without crying.
The 5-4 ruling would result in separated families, disrupted careers and abandoned educations for the Iranian community Rahimi represents as an advocate and lawyer.
When Trump first ordered the ban in 2017, Rahimi immediately headed to San Francisco International Airport to help organize protests. He also helped devise a system for lawyers and family members to communicate with visa-holding travelers who had landed in limbo.
A mix of adrenaline and outrage fueled the rapid response and litigation. But the defeat at the Supreme Court was almost too much to bear.
“It’s demoralizing and it hurts on a deep level,” Rahimi said. “That decision is not what America is supposed to be about. Every American comes from immigrants. I wouldn’t be here if there was a travel ban when my parents immigrated.”
The level of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in American society today reminds Rahimi of previous waves he and his parents experienced. His dad faced job discrimination during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. Rahimi faced bullies in his Mountain View high school in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Rahimi’s parents, Mehdi and Nayer, came separately to the United States as students before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They met in Berkeley.
Rahimi’s mom Nayer left a religiously conservative family in Iran to pursue more freedom and higher education as a woman. She earned an MBA degree and a green card while working as a teller for a Berkeley bank.
Rahimi’s father Mehdi wanted to escape the shadow of his older brothers to find his own opportunity. He completed a bachelor’s degree in business and became a district manager for a national fast food chain.
Yet forging a life together wasn’t easy. Rahimi’s father stopped being promoted and lost his job after Iranian revolutionaries invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
He found work as a limo driver and then ran a failed hot dog stand in downtown San Jose. The cart was vandalized and he couldn’t afford to repair it. Eventually, the post office hired him. He carried letters for nearly 20 years until having a heart attack and then dying from leukemia.
“I’m glad he lived to see me sworn in as an attorney to the California Bar,” Rahimi said. “He was so proud. He called it his crowning achievement.”
Farsi was exclusively spoken at home and Rahim, 32, learned English watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on television.
Soon after Rahimi was born, his mother started a daycare business so she could look after Rahimi while earning an income. But money grew tight when she took time off to fight colon cancer.
She negotiated a deal at Rahimi’s elementary school: a tuition discount for helping a school administrator with the direct mail business he ran on the side. Rahimi and his parents — his mom with colostomy bag in hand — packaged 1,000 boxes of soap a week at home.
Rahimi’s parents put all their resources into their only child’s education. Rahimi finished undergraduate at Berkeley, earned his master’s degree at the London School of Economics and completed law school at UC Davis.
Winning over the bullies
Rahimi practiced Sufism, which he describes as a mix of Islam and Buddhism focusing on meditation and detachment from materialism.
Going to a Catholic high school had its challenges.
“Religion wasn’t the only way I didn’t fit in,” Rahimi said. “Everything I wore was two sizes too big because my mom wanted me to grow into my clothes, which I never did. And I had a unibrow. Who wants to date the guy with a unibrow?”
It didn’t help that after 9/11, Rahimi’s nickname became “Bin Laden.”
“When I told my parents about being bullied, they told me what they had to face,” Rahimi said. “It was part of the deal for being in America. For them, discrimination in America was still better than oppression at home. That didn’t sit right with me.”
Rahimi was determined to write a different story. In high school he joined everything — 16 clubs including debate, stock market and foreign language. He played on the soccer team and acted in school plays. He even ran for student council. He lost. He ran again and lost. But he kept building his coalition of nerds, drama kids, soccer players and even former bullies. On this third attempt, he won.
“I’m grateful for my high school experience,” Rahimi said. “I figured out how to connect and relate to people. And my Catholic education instilled the principles of social justice I carry with me today.”
San Francisco politics
As an adult, Rahimi had early political success as an elected delegate to the state Democratic Party. But he had a crash course in navigating San Francisco’s “moderate” and “progressive” divide where democrats in different shades of blue fight each other over local control.
He found himself the subject of news articles in the contentious race for mayor this year. Rahimi said he supported Mayor London Breed because of her outreach to the Muslim community. But as first reported in the San Francisco Examiner, his effort to "bundle" donations for Breed seemed to run afoul of a new law banning lobbyists from donating to elected officials or candidates at agencies they are registered to lobby.
As an in-house lawyer for Chariot, Rahimi was registered to lobby the SFMTA. But Rahimi was not registered to lobby the Board of Supervisors or the mayor's office. Rahimi said his meeting with Supervisor Ahsha Safai had been listed as a lobbying contact due to an administrative error.
"It was an honest mistake," Rahimi said. "Supervisor Safai asked me to meet to talk about bringing affordable service to communities of concern in his district. It wasn't supposed to be listed as a lobby visit, and we corrected the record as soon as we discovered the error."
As a lawyer for a tech enabled transportation company, Rahimi's job can be a
challenge in a city where some politicians view the tech industry as a threat. Yet
Chariot hires full-time union drivers with health benefits and paid vacation.
“Moderate and progressive distinctions in San Francisco don’t make sense to me. I’m super pro-housing. I’m also very pro-labor. And I’m passionate about being united against Trump,” Rahimi said. “I fought the travel ban and continue to fight for immigrants because everyone deserves the opportunities that put me in a privileged position.”
While Rahimi was devastated to see Justice Kennedy cast the vote to uphold Trump’s travel ban, he hasn’t given up hope.
Rahimi is vice president of the Northern California chapter of the Iranian American Bar Association. His group, along with other immigrant-rights organizations, filed a lawsuit this month accusing the Trump administration of turning a waiver provision of the ban into a “sham.” Hardship waivers are supposed to be available but are rarely granted.
“We are going to chip away at this ban until there’s nothing left,” Rahimi said. “I believe we will survive Trump. I believe there will be another Obama with policies that connect Iran’s educated middle class to the world. Iran and America will be allies one day.”
On the tough days, when the goal seems overwhelming, Rahimi thinks of his parents and puts his sunglasses away.
“My parents had the craziest determination and grit. They faced unbelievable challenges and pulled through,” Rahimi said. “They suffered many scars to give me a shot. How could I ever give up?”