Uncle Sam Doesn't Want You ; Foreign Scholars Denied Visas Say They Are Still Waiting to Hear Why

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Uncle Sam Doesn't Want You ; Foreign Scholars Denied Visas Say They Are Still Waiting to Hear Why


Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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