On Thursday, Waskar Ari went to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia and picked up his visa. Everything went smoothly, ending a two-year struggle by Ari and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for him to join the university's history department.
For most of the time, the Department of Homeland Security had a block on Ari obtaining a visa. Movement came only after the university took the unusual step of suing the federal agency this year and after numerous academic groups and faculty senates publicized his situation.
"I feel happy that the issue that took two years of my life ended," said Ari on Saturday, via e-mail from Bolivia. "I am optimistic and ready to move to Lincoln." He is planning to teach two classes this fall on Latin American history.
While Ari is now focused on the normal activities of planning his courses, his last two years have been anything but normal. Those involved with the efforts on Ari's behalf say that his ordeal illustrates the continued difficulties faced by foreign scholars seeking to accept jobs in the United States -- and the importance of challenging the Department of Homeland Security.
Ari grew up in Bolivia and earned his doctorate in history in 2005 from Georgetown University. His research focuses on issues of race and nationalism in Latin America and while at Georgetown, he also did comparative work looking at the civil rights movement in the United States. As he was finishing his doctorate, he was hired by Nebraska for a tenure-track job as assistant professor.
He then took a quick trip home to Bolivia, with the plan to visit his relatives and switch visas to reflect his changed status from a student to a professor. Nebraska filed the appropriate paperwork, and no one expected any difficulty as Ari's background was a perfect match for the position and he had been studying without any controversy at Georgetown.
For reasons that Homeland Security has never explained (and still won't today), it told the State Department not to process Ari's application, so he was in limbo. Michael Maggio, a Washington immigration lawyer who handled Nebraska's suit pro bono, said that the university "tried to talk common sense to the government for months" before suing. During those discussions, Maggio said, he was never able to get any clear reason why the government wanted to keep Ari out of the country. Through back channels, he said that he was told Homeland Security was concerned because Ari is a member of an indigenous group in Bolivia and writes about his identity. "But that's like blocking me because I'm an Italian-American," Maggio said.
In March, Nebraska sued, and by May the Department of Homeland Security lifted its block, which enabled Ari to start the process of actually applying for a visa. And last week, the visa came through.
"I think what's really remarkable here is UNL's perseverance on behalf of Dr. Ari, and it really is to their substantial credit," Maggio said. "Dr. Ari was not yet a university employee, and there are a lot of institutions that would not go to bat like this for someone who was an employee."
Nebraska's suit never had court hearings, but Maggio said it is clear that the government only stopped its efforts against Ari when faced with the prospect of appearing before a judge. That's why, he said, other institutions should consider Nebraska's approach when encountering similar visa limbo. "Suing the Department of Homeland Security requires a degree of commitment to academic freedom that is really noteworthy, but folks need to display that kind of determination," Maggio said.
At Nebraska, the history department has maintained a Web site for all of the letters, resolutions and statements that have been issued on behalf of Ari. More important, it has held open the job for which it hired Ari.
Kenneth Winkle, chair of the department, said that scholars were hired on one-year positions so that Ari wouldn't lose the tenure-track position.
His advice to colleges and scholars in similar situations: "Be patient and resolute and do not waver."