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Australian Academic Refused Entry to the U.S.

October 24, 2017
 
 

A professor at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, said she was initially denied entry to the U.S. after the academic honorarium she was to receive from a U.S. university came under scrutiny.

The New Zealand Herald first reported on the case of Vicki Spencer, an associate professor of political theory at the University of Otago and an Australian citizen. In emails with Inside Higher Ed, Spencer confirmed the basic details of the account in the Herald and said she was traveling to the U.S. on the visa waiver program to spend two weeks at the University of Oregon conducting independent research in the library. She said her expenses at Oregon were being paid with a grant for her sabbatical from Otago and that she was not receiving any honorariums or expenses from Oregon.

Spencer also planned to travel to Northwestern University to give a one-day seminar. She said Northwestern had agreed to pay for airfare from Eugene to Chicago, two nights of accommodations and meal costs, and to provide a small honorarium.

Spencer said she was stopped at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance checkpoint at the Vancouver, Canada airport. She said the first officer who interviewed her "asked me angrily how many of these things I was being paid for. He didn't directly say I couldn't receive an honorarium but that was the implication when I later knew what the problem was -- I didn't really at that point. He took my passport, boarding passes and letters and told me to follow him." Spencer said a second officer interviewed her and, after speaking with a supervisor, told her she was being denied entry for engaging in paid employment. 

"I was told that it is not possible under any circumstances to be able to receive an honorarium as that constitutes paid employment," Spencer said via email to Inside Higher Ed. "Moreover, it was not possible to have any expenses paid as that was a benefit to me. He said I could certainly give lectures but that I had to pay the costs of doing so. If that were true, as I’m sure you know, it would have significant consequences for the way academics operate given how normal it is to have such expenses paid."

The law states that foreign nationals admitted as visitors “may accept an honorarium payment and associated incidental expenses for a usual academic activity or activities (lasting not longer than 9 days at any single institution)…if the alien has not accepted such payment or expenses from more than 5 institutions or organizations in the previous 6-month period.” Spencer said she had not been to the U.S. since 2016 -- when she attended a conference -- and had no plans for any subsequent trips within the next six months. 

"It was after all that when I was back on Canadian solid and after I had changed my flights etc. that I got back onto the U.S. Department website and had it reconfirmed that I had done nothing wrong," Spencer said. "The people on the desk at Alaska Airlines told me there was a Canadian immigration service. They then gave me a number to ring the U.S. side. I spoke to a woman who assured me the officers know the rules and I said I was reading them directly from the website. She spoke to her supervisor and then she informed me he said for me to rebook my flights and to come back through." 

"The only reason I did not go through after the supervisor fixed the issue was that I had already changed my flights to come home at some expense, and I would have lost that money," Spencer said. "Plus it was going to cost more to get my original flight back. Then, my Airbnb accommodation which I had cancelled had been rebooked for much of the time. It was all going to cost me quite a bit of money as I could not cover it with my research grant. I also had to decide very quickly not to miss my flight back home -- I had about 10 minutes before check-in was going to close. As I could barely think at that point, I gave up and decided to come home.”

The U.S. embassy in Wellington told the Herald it could not comment on individual cases.

Spencer told Inside Higher Ed that she concluded that the border agents she encountered were “were not properly trained in the regulations” governing honorariums. “And my advice for anyone traveling to the US, who is being paid an honorarium or having their expenses paid, or just going as a researcher, is to take a hard copy of the visa waiver regulations with them. That is the message I would like others to know so they do not face similar issues.”

In a similar case, Henry Rousso, a French Holocaust scholar, was detained at the Houston airport and nearly deported in February seemingly due to confusion on the border agent’s part about whether he could accept an honorarium. Rousso was allowed to enter after the intervention of officials at Texas A&M University, where he was to speak at a symposium.

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