Everyone agrees that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States was so worried about who it would let into the country that visa problems were widespread -- even for many scholars posing no security threat. But the Bush administration has boasted that things are better now -- and that the United States wants foreign talent to feel welcome.
Tell that to Karim Meziane. He's a citizen of Canada and a physicist at the University of New Brunswick, who was turned away at the U.S. border in 2004 when he was trying to attend a research conference to which he had been invited by the University of New Hampshire.
While many have been turned away or denied visas or just had visa applications languish, Meziane's case is unusual: He got the Department of Homeland Security to tell him, in writing, why he was persona non grata. He was then able to demonstrate -- with written government documents -- that the department was wrong. But to this day, he can't get anyone to change the conclusion or even talk about the case. And when the head of Canada's largest professors' group asked for a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to talk about the case and the issues it raises, he was turned down without explanation.
"I found the reaction [from the U.S.] both surprising and in some ways insulting. He was just dismissive," said James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "This sends the message that once you get on a list, even if it is clearly in error, there is nothing that can be done." Turk's association -- unable even to get a hearing from U.S. officials in Canada -- is now talking about the case in the hope that Americans and others may benefit from learning about it, and may be able to do something. (Meziane said he didn't want to talk about the case, except to confirm that the correspondence is accurate.)
One irony of the case is that Meziane spent several years in the United States, legally, when he was a citizen of Algeria, where he was born. He had fellowships at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington and also attended conferences in the United States. Turk said that's part of what really bothers him about the case: He notes that the U.S. let Meziane in when he was on an Algerian passport but won't do so when he carries the passport of Canada, in theory one of the closest allies of the United States. (Officials of the U.S. Embassy in Canada, where protests about the incident have been lodged, did not respond to calls or e-mail seeking comment.)
"What has happened to Meziane is yet another example of how a visa decision harms our country and why Congress needs to look into how the visa system can be improved," said Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the American Association of University Professors.
Meziane's problems started in 2004. As he has recounted, and as university officials on both sides of the border have verified, he was en route to the University of New Hampshire, where he was scheduled to speak at a physics conference on "Multi-spacecraft Observations on Field Aligned Beams." He was stopped at the Maine-Canada border by U.S. authorities, and was detained for multiple rounds of questions, even though he had with him a Canadian passport, and a copy of his invitation from the university. In addition, once word reached the university that he was having difficulty, the university was able to call the border crossing and confirm his identity and his invitation.
In letters, Meziane said that during the six hours of questioning, he was asked about his religion, about his views on the war in Iraq, about his views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of his views of the United States, and many other questions -- over and over again. Eventually, he was let go, but only back to Canada.
Meziane said it was important for him to find out what happened because he is invited to conferences in the United States regularly and didn't want a similar experience. So he started writing and calling U.S. authorities. In June 2005, he received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security in which it gave a reason for his exclusion: "Our review indicated that you were detained and refused admission prior to entry into the United States because of a [sic] unlawful activities committed in Canada." The letter did not specify the unlawful activities, but Meziane thought he had an opening. He knew that he hadn't committed any crimes in Canada, so he set out to demonstrate that.
Who better to call than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- and more specifically its National Security Investigation Section (sort of the Canadian Federal Bureau of Investigation). Meziane wrote and six months later, he got an answer from the superintendent of the branch: Canada "does not hold any information that would indicate involvement in criminal activities or criminal conviction for the name Karim Meziane." Turk, of the Canadian faculty group, said that the phrasing is key.
In its letter, Homeland Security used the phrase "unlawful activities," which could have meant activities known to be illegal but for which no charges had been brought. Canadian authorities responded in kind, saying that not only didn't Meziane have a criminal record, but there was no information suggesting he deserved one.
By this time, it was March 2006, a year and a half after Meziane had tried to enter the U.S. Why had it taken so long -- six months -- for the Canadian authorities to verify his lack of a criminal activity? According to the letter from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, it "contacted the American authorities and request clarification regarding their assertion that they had refused you entry into the United States due to the fact that you had been involved in unlawful activities in Canada. To date, we have received no responses."
So Meziane thought he had had the proof he needed -- he just needed to get the word to U.S. authorities. So he appealed to Turk's organization, and Turk wrote to the U.S. ambassador, outlining the situation, sharing copies of all the documents, noting that his group represents more than 55,000 academics at 100 colleges and universities in Canada, and requesting a meeting.
A few weeks later, he received a three-sentence reply from David H. Wilkins, the ambassador. The relevant two sentences: "I have fully checked with the appropriate U.S. agencies in Canada regarding the case of Dr. Meziane and have been assured that they stand by their decision. It therefore appears there is no change in Professor Meziane's status at this time."
Turk said he doesn't know what to do -- since the U.S. authorities won't meet or identify the alleged criminal activities, even to the Canadian security agency. He noted that Meziane is a common enough last name in Algeria that he suspects this is a case of the wrong Meziane ending up on the wrong list.
The Meziane case is unusual, Turk said, in that the physicist was able to get a written response from Homeland Security, and was willing to share the information. Turk said he hears from between a dozen and two dozen scholars a year who are Canadian citizens and are having similar issues. Most of those cases involve people who were born outside of Canada, typically in the Middle East, and most of those professors never find out why the U.S. won't let them in, he said. Some of the cases, he noted, have involved people with Anglo-Saxon names, people who have worked as consultants for U.S. federal agencies, and people who have made many trips without incident to the United States before somehow being declared unsuitable for entry.
The impact of these cases goes well beyond those like Meziane, he said. Turk said he hears from many Canadian scholars, especially those whose last names might suggest that they are Muslim, who are unsure about whether they can safely accept invitations to attend conferences or do collaborative research in the United States. "This is having a real chilling affect. There is a lot of anxiety," he said. "I'm getting calls from people saying, 'If I go to a conference, could I be detained?' "