Entry Denied

A professor at the American University of Beirut with two U.S. graduate degrees was refused admission to enter the country to present at a conference.

June 12, 2017
George Saad

A professor at the American University of Beirut traveling to an engineering conference in California was denied entry into the U.S. by immigration officials at Los Angeles International Airport in a case that could raise renewed concerns about the impact of the Trump administration’s travel policies on academic exchange.

AUB said George Saad traveled to the U.S. on Friday, June 2, to present his work at the American Society of Civil Engineers' Engineering Mechanics Institute conference in San Diego. “At the gate in Charles de Gaulle airport, he was interviewed by a representative from the U.S. embassy in Paris to confirm his identity before boarding the flight to LAX,” AUB said in a statement. “He was cleared to fly but was met in LAX by immigration officers, who continued to interview him. Then he was informed that his visa was canceled, and he was put on a return flight out of LAX.”

Saad, an assistant professor of engineering at AUB, a prestigious, American-style institution chartered in the state of New York, has graduate degrees from two U.S. universities -- a master’s from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California -- and is a licensed engineer in California, according to his online CV and California professional registration records. “AUB is surprised and concerned by the restrictions placed on a scholar who was traveling in order to share his research in the engineering field,” the university said.

Saad did not return multiple email messages seeking comment. In an interview with The New York Post, which first reported on the refusal, he said he was interrogated for four hours upon arriving at LAX, that his phone and laptop were seized, and that he had to give passwords for the devices. He told the Post he has traveled to the U.S. without incident about 15 times, including for engineering conferences in 2015 and 2016, and that he was not given an explanation for why he was refused entry.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said only that Saad “was found inadmissible under the provisions of INA,” the Immigration and Nationality Act.

“CBP officers are thoroughly trained on admissibility factors and the Immigration and Nationality Act, which broadly governs the admissibility and inadmissibility of travelers into the United States,” the agency said in a statement. “It should also be emphasized that CBP strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“CBP denies entry to an average of 700 individuals a day -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent. We recognize that there is an important balance to strike between securing our borders while facilitating the high volume of legitimate trade and travel that crosses our borders every day, and we strive to achieve that balance and show the world that the United States is a welcoming nation.”

Section 212 of the INA states a long list of reasons why foreign nationals would be ineligible for a visa or admission into the U.S., including reasons related to health, criminal activity, and terrorism and national security.

“I can’t tell you why he was excluded, but those grounds [for exclusion] are really broad,” said Ally Bolour, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Board of Governors. “We are seeing this all over. This is a high-profile case, but it’s happening to ordinary folks that nobody hears about.”

“INA 212 has a good purpose; its purpose is to exclude people that might do us harm. That’s why Congress put it there, but then when you apply it without any rationale, and really profile people -- and that might have happened here -- it has a chilling effect,” Bolour said.

“We have clients, sometimes they have to wait months and months and months with no light at the end of the tunnel until and if the visa is issued,” Bolour continued. “What this situation presents is even after that drama, someone at LAX or another port of entry can just randomly deny [entry] with no explanation whatsoever. The chilling effect is people like [Saad] will not come to the U.S. next time. They don’t want to be humiliated. Remember, it’s at least a 12-hour flight, they hold you at LAX, then they put you on a plane. It’s extremely uncomfortable, not to mention humiliating.”

The denial of entry to Saad comes amid widespread concerns in higher education that President Trump’s ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries -- temporarily halted by the courts -- and his proposals for more “extreme vetting” of international visitors could have a chilling impact on academic exchange. (Lebanon is not among the six countries included in the halted travel ban.)

Many are worried that incidents like this will prompt international scholars to stay away from U.S.-based conferences. In February, Henry Rousso, a Holocaust historian from France traveling to speak at a symposium at Texas A&M University, was interrogated for 10 hours and nearly sent back to Paris before an immigration law professor at A&M intervened on his behalf. In that case, Rousso seems to have come under scrutiny due to confusion on the border officer’s part about whether he could accept an honorarium while in the U.S. on a tourist visa (international visitors who enter on tourist visas are typically prohibited from receiving payment, but there are exceptions for honoraria for academic activities).

The U.S. Department of State recently began asking extra questions of certain visa applicants related to their social media handles, employment and travel histories, and familial connections, despite the objections of more than 50 academic groups that argued that the enhanced questioning is "likely to have a chilling effect not only on those required to submit additional information, but indirectly on all international travelers to the United States" and could lead to long delays in processing times.

A State Department spokesperson said of the supplemental questioning that "maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats. We already request contact information, travel history, family member information and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting additional information from visa applicants whose circumstances suggest a need for further scrutiny strengthens our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which sponsored the conference that Saad was planning on attending, issued the following statement about him being refused entry.

“The American Society of Civil Engineers believes that the United States must continue to welcome qualified individuals from all countries, to study, teach, work, create jobs and carry out scholarship and other activities that will enhance our health, safety and welfare. ASCE urges the Trump administration, Congress and interested parties to work together to develop sound policies that ensure our visa system prevents entry by those who wish to harm us, while maintaining the inflow of talent that has contributed so much to our nation.”

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