Courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
An Iranian student with a visa to attend Northeastern University was denied entry to the United States last weekend at Boston’s Logan International Airport and removed from the country despite a court order blocking his removal, his lawyer said.
Immigration lawyers and advocates for Iranian Americans say they have seen a rise in cases of Iranians with valid visas being turned away at airports, at either the port of departure or entry.
Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, said he is aware of about two dozen such cases since August. He attributed the trend to heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
“August was when it was clear this was happening on a somewhat wide scale,” Costello said. “Prior to that, many students had complications in securing visas and getting the timing right so they could start their semester on time, but we didn’t really see kind of this wide-scale rejection of individuals who had already secured their visas. I think this is something new, and it’s happened within the last six months.”
The Northeastern student, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, attempted to enter the U.S. on Sunday but was held back by Customs and Border Protection agents for secondary questioning, at which point CBP officials detained him, revoked his student visa and issued an expedited removal order, according to an emergency petition filed Monday evening by his lawyers in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts.
Later Monday night, a federal judge, Allison D. Burroughs, issued an order blocking CBP from removing Hossein Abadi pending a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning. But lawyers for Hossein Abadi said he was removed from the country on a plane bound for Paris after the order was issued.
“We filed the petition around 7:30ish, then Judge Burroughs from the federal district court issued a stay order at 9:27, and then from our understanding he departed at 10:03,” said Kerry Doyle, a lawyer for Hossein Abadi.
On Tuesday morning, Judge Richard G. Stearns dismissed the petition to keep Hossein Abadi in the U.S. as moot.
“Obviously, we want to hold CBP accountable for what appears to have been their refusal to follow the district court’s order, so we will be pursuing a filing with Judge Burroughs in the coming days,” Doyle said. “As to the case as a whole, we’re keeping all of our options open.”
Doyle said the documentation she has seen from CBP suggests that Hossein Abadi was deemed inadmissible because CBP officials thought he intended to immigrate to the U.S., in violation of the terms of his student visa, which requires individuals to demonstrate that they have no intention of staying in the country permanently.
"We see no evidence whatsoever to back that up," Doyle said of the finding that Hossein Abadi intended to immigrate.
In a statement it issued on Tuesday, CBP did not address why Hossein Abadi was denied entry or comment on allegations that it ignored the court order mandating that he remain in the agency's custody.
"Every applicant for admission is subject to inspection upon arrival in the United States," the agency said. "The issuance of a visa or participation in the visa waiver program does not guarantee entry to the United States. Upon arrival at Logan Airport on Sunday, January 19, [Hossein Abadi] was deemed inadmissible and processed for expedited removal and return to his place of departure. During today’s hearing, the court ruled that the matter is now moot as the subject was never admitted into the United States, the subject is no longer in custody, and the court does not have jurisdiction to order his return."
Hossein Abadi, who is 24 years old, was set to enroll in a bachelor's degree program at Northeastern University. Northeastern officials said in a statement that they had reached out to the student directly and had been in contact with members of their congressional delegation.
"Twenty-four hours after learning that our student was detained and sent back overseas, we still have not received a satisfactory explanation from Customs and Border Protection for this action," Northeastern said in its statement. "We believe that a clear explanation is needed, especially because the deportation took place after a 48-hour extension was granted by a federal judge. Only in the most extreme instances should students have their academic pursuits interrupted by government intervention."
According to court documents, Hossein Abadi first applied for a U.S. visa in 2018 and waited for “nearly a year” while his application was held up for “administrative processing,” which typically entails additional security screening. His visa was granted approximately a week ago.
David Ware, an immigration attorney, said Iranian students hoping to travel to the U.S. are frequently subject to long delays while their visa applications undergo administrative processing, which he described as a euphemism for security checks.
But even a student who makes it through the security check and gets a visa isn't guaranteed entry. Ware described an "epidemic" of people "who passed the security checks that are generated by the consulate but then are denied entry by CBP and are sent back, such as this young man."
"Under our law, CBP has a second bite at the apple to determine admissibility," Ware said. "The consulate has the first bite in the apple, and they put the person through a security check. The consulate determined through various agencies of the U.S. that this person was not a risk to U.S. security. Then CBP turns around and revokes their visa and sends them home. Usually, what CBP will tell you is something came up in the encounter with the CBP officer in the U.S. that indicated to the CBP officer that the visa had been erroneously granted, and there was indeed some problem with the individual. It could have been a security issue, or it could have been some other issue."
The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian have reported on other visa revocations involving Iranian students this academic year. The Los Angeles Times reported on about 20 such cases, most involving students admitted to University of California campuses. Most of the students learned of the revocations when they showed up at airports for their flights to the U.S.
The case involving Hossein Abadi is reminiscent of a similar case at the start of the academic year involving a Palestinian undergraduate student bound for Harvard University, Ismail Ajjawi, who was initially denied entry into the U.S. upon his arrival in Boston. Ajjawi, who was ultimately admitted to the U.S. after Harvard intervened, said CBP officials questioned him about his religious beliefs and about social media posts from Facebook friends that expressed political opposition to the U.S.
Ajjawi's case attracted widespread attention and concern, as did the new case involving Hossein Abadi. Among those weighing in supporting Hossein Abadi were Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. representative Joe Kennedy III, also of Massachusetts.
"Turning away those who make this nation a better place is no way to govern," Kennedy said on Twitter. "This president treats every immigrant as a terrorist -- that’s not what this nation was founded upon. Let him stay."
Iranians in general are barred from coming to the U.S. under President Trump's travel ban, although there is an exception to the ban for Iranians coming on student visas. The number of students from Iran declined by 5 percent during the last academic year, according to data from the Institute of International Education's annual Open Doors survey on international enrollments. Iranians make up the 13th-largest group of international students in the U.S. The majority, almost three-quarters of them, study at the graduate level.
"I certainly think the U.S. is doing long-term damage to our ability to recruit really bright people, bring them here and have them excel in institutions of higher learning across the country," said Costello of the National Iranian American Council. "It's likely that a lot of brilliant people are going to go to Canada, they’re going to go to Europe, they’re going to go elsewhere because our national policy is one of discrimination against Iranians."