Stop Telling Foreign Scholars to Stay Home

Jonathan Knight writes that it's time for Congress and professors to take on the issue of visa denials to academics.

February 12, 2007

For decades foreign scholars have visited the United States to meet with their counterparts in this country, to present a paper at an academic conference, or to take up an appointment at an American college or university. These visits have been immeasurably beneficial to this country in advancing knowledge in all academic fields and in strengthening ties with other nations.

Under the current administration these visits have continued, but as evidenced by a series of visa decisions over the past three years, the administration’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas has been alarmingly weak.

In August 2004, the administration revoked a visa that had earlier been issued to Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen and a renowned scholar of the Muslim world, to begin an appointment as a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame. Ramadan had previously been able to travel freely to the United States, and currently he has an appointment at the University of Oxford and is serving as an advisor on anti-terrorism policies to the British government.

In responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Association of University Professors and other organizations in behalf of Ramadan, government lawyers said that Ramadan had not been denied entry because of his views about terrorism, contrary to what the government initially stated, but refused to specify why or to act on the visa. And then, in response to a federal court’s ruling that was skeptical that a sound legal basis exists for the administration’s continuing to deny entry to Ramadan, the government told Ramadan that it declined to renew his visa application because he had donated some $900 to two Palestinian relief organizations that in turn gave money to Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. Ramadan had previously disclosed these donations to U.S. consular officials.

In September 2004, the Department of State denied visas to 65 Cuban scholars one week before they were to participate in a conference sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) to be held in Las Vegas. The blanket visa denials were unprecedented in their scope; a State Department spokesperson said that the action was “consistent with the overall tightening of our policy” toward Cuba. The department took the same action in March 2006 against 55 Cuban scholars who were to have attended a LASA conference in Puerto Rico.

In June 2005, Professor Waskar Ari, a citizen of Bolivia, learned that he was not to be issued a visa and therefore could not begin his faculty appointment at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln that fall. Like Ramadan, Ari had been a frequent visitor to the United States, where he obtained his Ph.D. in history. The administration has given no explanation for this decision.

A year later, in June 2006, government officials barred Professor John Milios of Greece from entering the country to attend an academic conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Milios, who had been in this country on five separate occasions between 1996 and 2003, was halted at JFK international airport, where he was questioned about his beliefs and associations. He reports having undergone similar questioning by the American consul in Athens when he returned to Greece.

The most recent incident occurred in October 2006, when Professor Adam Habib, a citizen of South Africa, was, like Melios, denied entry into the country upon his arrival at JFK airport. He had been scheduled to meet with officers of the Social Science Research Council, Columbia University, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Bank. A frequent visitor to the United States, Habib initially thought that perhaps he was mistakenly barred entry because he had once been detained as a political prisoner under South Africa’s apartheid regime. He abandoned the notion of bureaucratic error when the American consulate in Johannesburg informed his wife in early January of the State Department’s extraordinary decision to revoke her visa and those of their two small children for travel to this country.

No doubt these visa-denial decisions are colored by circumstances particular to each one. For example, the administration’s refusing entry to Cuban scholars, like its Cuban policy more broadly, has been heavily influenced by anti-Castro politics in Florida, a factor not at play in the other visa decisions.

The common thread in these decisions is that in none of them has the administration questioned the reasons given by the foreign scholars for visiting the U.S. as being false or even suspect. At a time of genuine concern about threats to national security, it is perhaps not surprising when the government overreaches in guarding our borders. Certainly this administration is not the first to keep foreign scholars out of the country. But a bad practice is not improved by repeating it.

The administration, instead of instilling confidence that it knows what it is doing to stop foreign visitors from harming us, invites cynicism when it bars scholars who wish to enter this country for legitimate academic reasons. With these decisions, it hampers our ability to learn from those whose experiences and knowledge can enrich our understanding of vital issues.

These visa decisions also teach the wrong lessons to foreign scholars. Barred from entering the country without explanation or for reasons that defy common sense, they are left with the impression that our government fears ideas almost as much as it fears bombs. That may be a false impression, but the administration has only itself to blame for decisions that encourage this kind of thinking.

Various groups have sharply criticized the government’s decisions in specific cases, but every opportunity should be pursued to remind the academic community and those outside it of the basic and central point that keeping legitimate scholars out of the country damages freedom. Also needed is more effective Congressional oversight of the visa process and of visa decisions that may impair the free circulation of ideas. And positive action by both the executive branch and Congress on new visa recommendations proposed by a coalition of organizations may help guard against the misuse of the visa system.

Plainly the government should erect high barriers to thwart real threats to the nation’s security. But it should abandon barriers to the visits of foreign scholars to this country and encourage the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas. Such a policy could be a powerful means of enhancing the nation’s well-being.


Jonathan Knight directs the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors 


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