Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You
Foreign scholars denied visas say they are still waiting to hear why.
Why have prominent foreign scholars had their visas to speak or teach in this country denied or revoked? Many, including the academic institutions who invited them, are baffled.
Waskar Ari, for example, a historian from Bolivia, has been in limbo for nine months. After earning his doctorate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he was eager to start as an assistant professor last fall at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
But when he went home for a visit, the US State Department canceled his visas and has not given him a work permit. Neither he nor the university received an explanation.
“This has been the most challenging experience in my life,” says Dr. Ari, the first member of the indigenous community in South America to be offered a teaching post in the United States.
He is not alone. Since passage of the USA Patriot Act after Sept. 11, 2001, a number of academics have been denied visas or had them revoked. The most high-profile case is that of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Swiss scholar of Islam. A last-minute revocation of his visa (his furniture was already en route to the US) kept him from a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame in 2004.
At the time, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman cited Section 411 of the Patriot Act, which excludes foreigners who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” Ramadan has consistently condemned terrorist acts, though he has been critical of some US policies.
Universities and scholarly associations have written letters to the government to no avail. Now a few groups are suing to have the so-called “ideological exclusion” clause declared unconstitutional. They contend it is being used to prevent American citizens from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment. “This kind of exclusion can be used as a way to censor and manipulate political and academic debate in the United States,” says Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s lead attorney in the case. “I think that is what is happening,”
The ACLU filed suit in January on behalf of the American Association of University Professors, the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the PEN American Center, and Professor Ramadan. Although he resigned his Notre Dame post after several months and is now a visiting fellow at Oxford University, Ramadan applied for another visa after receiving many invitations to speak from US organizations.
“Tariq Ramadan is one of the foremost scholars of Islam in the world today,” says Barbara DeConcini, AAR executive director, “and he is addressing precisely the issues of pressing importance for us as Americans, and certainly for us as scholars of religion. We were flabbergasted when his visa was revoked.”
The State Department declines to talk about individual visa cases. But spokeswoman Amanda Rogers Harper says that “in accordance with US law, applicants are told, at least in general terms, why they have been denied.”
In papers filed in federal district court in Manhattan in April, the government said, contrary to earlier remarks from the Department of Homeland Security, that it had not made a determination against Ramadan based on Section 411 and “disavowed any present intention” to do so. The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the government to act on the visa and to prevent it from using Section 411 against him. The judge is expected to respond soon. Then the court will consider the constitutionality of ideological exclusion.
Foreigners have been barred from the US for their political views at different times in history, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the McCarron-Walter Act during the Cold War. Many artists, writers, and political figures have been affected.
Supporters say such steps are vital to protect society from dangerous influences, particularly at a time of war.
“We’ve always allowed ourselves the right to keep people out,” says James Edwards, an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization in Washington. “Our government’s job is to protect Americans, including from ideological extremists who promote ideas intended to harm the US. Free speech is an internal family discussion.”
Others say it is contrary to values America promotes in the world – and to the First Amendment. In the 1970s, Mr. Jaffer says, the Supreme Court held that when foreign scholars were denied entry, First Amendment rights of groups inviting them were affected, and government must cite a “legitimate and bona fide reason” for exclusion.
In 1990, the ideological exclusion provisions of the McCarron-Walter Act were repealed, after many insisted that people being excluded were not a real threat and it was time to bring US practice more into line with democratic principles. The Patriot Act reintroduced such exclusion, and proposed immigration laws may extend it.
“Today, the government can exclude people for many reasons – they are members of a terrorist organization, have engaged in terrorism, been convicted of serious crimes,” Jaffer says. “But it can’t exclude an invited scholar just because it doesn’t like what the scholar has to say.”
But many believe that’s exactly what’s going on. To spotlight the issue, US artists and writers joined in “An Evening Without …” in New York City on April 27. Salman Rushdie, Debra Winger, Russell Banks, Martin Amis, and others gathered to read from the works of people, past and present, who have been barred from the US.
In other examples from 2005, Dora Maria Tellez, a former government health minister in Nicaragua, was denied a visa after being invited to teach at Harvard University; 60 Cuban scholars were kept from a conference in Puerto Rico.
“Some of these adverse actions would be difficult to explain on nonideological grounds,” says Robert O’Neil, a law professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. “Nobody questions there are genuine national security concerns, but the seeming irrationality or inexplicability of this process is troubling – and potentially damaging to our country’s image.” Indeed, Professor O’Neil says the practice not only interferes with scholars learning from one another, but also deprives students of important contact with ideas from other cultures and discourages other professionals from seeking to come to the US.
In February, two prominent scientists from India, insulted by what they felt was disrespectful treatment in the visa process, said they no longer wish to come here.
Such actions also upend people’s lives and taint their reputations. With a visa in hand in 2004, Ramadan had given up his teaching post in Geneva, sold his home, and packed his family for Indiana when he got the news. Put under a cloud by the US, he was later asked by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to serve on a task force after the London bombings.
Ari is a moderate, yet some surmise his support for indigenous rights may be an issue. Or he may be a victim of current politics, with the leftist Bolivian president, Evo Morales, on the outs with Washington.
“In 1999 I had a website to inform people about the indigenous struggle in Bolivia,” Ari conjectures via e-mail from La Paz. “It mentioned Evo Morales…. But I am not a Morales follower, nor do I belong to his party.”
In the indigenous web community, though, rumors are flying that the US considers Ari a terrorist just because he is an indigenous intellectual and had a website on the Indian struggle. At the University of Nebraska, which has a keen focus on indigenous history in the Americas, classes had to be canceled twice; students and faculty started a website to support his cause. “No matter what is next, I will remember that,” he says.
Scholars and artists denied
During the Cold War, immigration law allowed the government to deny visas to artists and scholars it saw as representing a danger to national security because of their political views. Among those denied visas to the United States during this period: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who later became Canada’s prime minister; British novelist Graham Greene; and Colombian novelist and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Marquéz.
In 1990, the law was amended to make such ideological exclusions illegal. But after Sept. 11, 2001, Section 411 of the USA Patriot Act authorized the government to refuse admission to the US to individuals who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” Since then, several foreign scholars have been denied visas, or existing visas have been revoked – sometimes without explanation. Among the scholars denied entry:
• Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim considered one of the foremost scholars of Islam in the West. He was prevented from taking up a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 and is currently a visiting fellow at Oxford.
• Waskar Ari, a Bolivian scholar of history and member of the indigenous Aymara community. After earning his doctorate at Georgetown University in Washington, he has not been allowed to teach at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
• Dora Maria Tellez, a Nicaraguan scholar and former minister of health. Offered a teaching position at Harvard University, she was denied a visa in 2005.
In January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit with other groups challenging Section 411. It argues that the “ideological exclusion provision” should be declared unconstitutional, as it is being used to prevent citizens from hearing speech protected by the First Amendment.