Foreign scholars being denied entry into U.S.

Sunday, September 23, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, is the moderator for the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at This column is a transcript of that program.

Loory: Nalini Ghuman is a British subject and an associate professor of music at Mills College in northern California. She lived in the United States for 10 years and received her doctorate from the University of California at Berkley. She plays the piano, sings and researches subjects that not many of us would go out of our way to read about. She has written, for example, on “India in the English Musical Imagination.” More than a year ago, she returned with her fiancé from a working vacation in England. At the San Francisco airport she was arrested, detained, strip-searched and questioned. Her passport was defaced, her America visa shredded and she was put on a plane back to England. She has been there since. American officials have said it must be a case of mistaken identity since there is nothing in her record or background to indicate that she represents a danger or security threat to the U.S. But attempts by her, the Mills College administration and the American Society of Musicologists to correct the situation have all gone unanswered. This is the most recent case to come to light about problems academics and others with unusual talents or skills have getting into the U.S. if they have ethnic or national backgrounds considered menacing. In fact, there was a recent demonstration in Washington by legal immigrants against the difficulty of getting or keeping visas that allow them to work in this country. This matter hasn’t been getting much attention in the press. Why is that?

Burton Bollag, reporter, Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.: It’s not an issue that really jumps out at the average American. It’s a question of individual scholars being denied visas, and the general public hasn’t heard about these people. Another problem is lack of transparency. When scholars are denied visas to come to the U.S., authorities almost never give reasons why. It’s very hard to contest a decision when you don’t know why you’re being kept out.

Loory: What is the legal basis for this?

Jonathan Knight, director, Department of Academic Freedom, American Association of University Professors, Washington, D.C.: In U.S. history, the executive branch of government has had very significant authority to stop persons from coming into the country. Problems have become more complicated and serious under the Patriot Act. The State Department specifically said that the Patriot Act can be aimed at persons who give voice to “irresponsible expressions of opinion.” In other words, the Administration is doing explicitly what other administrations have done in the past: keeping out individuals whose views it doesn’t wish to see expressed.

Loory: People to whom this is happening seem reluctant to talk about it. Ghuman didn’t talk for more than a year because she felt if the matter were handled quietly it might be resolved. Is that the right way to react?

L.A. Chung, metro columnist, San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, Calif.: It’s a natural way to react and it’s the typical reaction from foreign nationals coming into the country. When you have something at stake like your professional career, it’s very important. You’re not given any reasons for the action (so there’s no way for you) to counter the situation. The State Department just says, “we’ll get back to you.” So, isolation is the reason why people don’t speak out more, and it’s going to take a long time for people to become vocal.

Knight: Also, the U.S. used to be the country to go to for quality higher education. Now other places can compete with the U.S., and scholars who are kept out can reasonably say, why bother, when there are other places to pursue research or give a talk. The scholars in effect censor themselves by deciding not to come here, because it’s simply not worth the effort.

Loory: Aren’t many professional organizations moving their meetings from the U.S. to Canada because it’s easier for international members of these organizations to get visas to Canada?

Bullag: At its last conference, the Latin American Studies Association decided that it would hold all of its meetings outside the U.S. from now on because of this problem. The biggest problem has been with the Cubans. At its last two meetings, the association had about 50 Cuban scholars registered, and in the last few days before the conference, U.S. authorities told the Cubans that they were all being denied their visas. It’s now extremely rare for Cuban scholars to get visas to work as fellows or guest lecturers, or to give talks at U.S. universities. American academics say the policy is motivated by politics, by the administration trying to win points with the Cuban-American community in Florida.

Loory: What action can those who have been deported or denied access to the U.S. take to compel the government to change the situation?

Knight: Foreign citizens essentially have no rights. The executive branch of government exercises wide authority to keep people out of the U.S. if it’s not in the interests of the country, and the government decides what those interests are.

Chung: Often, foreign citizens can get politicians involved. To a degree, the politicians can write letters and can question the federal branch, but they don’t have any authority either. There was a professional scientific conference in Santa Clara, Calif., with about 300 Iranian scientists who had applied for visas. Less than half of them were approved and when they arrived in the U.S. they suddenly were told their visas were revoked. The head of the House subcommittee on immigration wrote a letter to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, but not in time for the conference to go ahead with those excluded academics.

Knight: Many of the individuals who are denied access have been in the U.S. multiple times. And they’ve been in the country since 2001, which underscores the difficulty in making sense of what the government believes it’s doing by stopping these folks from returning.

Loory: Ghuman wrote papers on subject like “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar” and “Memory, Myth and Loss in the Anglo-Indian Imagination.” Could low-level immigration officials look at writings like those and think there is a problem with her?

Bollag: The problem is that anything is possible, and there is no way to know what’s going on in any individual case. Ghuman is a scholar of musicology who doesn’t appear to have any kind of political involvement. Many feel her case is probably just a mistake. For more than a year now, she and the American Musicological Society and her college have been pleading with the State Department. They’ve gotten Congress-people and Ghuman’s member of Parliament in Britain to intercede on her behalf, but they just haven’t gotten any answers. In other cases, one could imagine that the administration was motivated by political reasons and wanted to prevent people from coming in to express their views.

Loory: These government activities are too reminiscent of the suppression of freedom and speech, and the suspicion of people from different backgrounds that characterizes totalitarian governments. These activities are unworthy of our democracy and need to be investigated and commented on.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.

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