By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006
When Waskar Ari traveled to Bolivia last year, after completing a doctorate at Georgetown University, he meant to stay there for 10 days. The historian was due back last fall to start a professorship at the University of Nebraska. A year later, he is still waiting to return.
Ari, an Aymara Indian, is one of a growing number of foreign scholars whose visas have been revoked or whose applications have been denied -- barred, according to civil rights and academic groups, for their ideological or political views. While the federal government denies this is happening, free-speech advocates and Ari's attorney say the practice is reaching near-epidemic proportions.
"We have a serious problem," said Robert Kreiser of the American Association of University Professors, who has written to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the issue and says the problem is growing. "This places a serious chill on the exercise of academic freedom."
The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking up to 15 cases, including Ari's, in which it thinks people have been banned for their beliefs. While ideology is rarely given as the official reason, the ACLU said academics increasingly are being interrogated about their political beliefs when they apply for visas.
"The government is using ideological exclusion laws as a way of manipulating the political and economic debate," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy director of the ACLU's national security program. "They are using the laws to deny Americans the right to hear views."
The government denies that charge. Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department for Homeland Security, said: "There are a host of reasons why an individual may be denied a visa, but their ideological or political beliefs are not reasons for denying entry."
Ari said he has heard only rumors to suggest that his application is being held up by national security concerns. His supporters, including those at the University of Nebraska, Georgetown and the American Historical Association, say there is no evidence to bar him and have begun a letter-writing campaign for him.
Ari's Washington attorney, Michael Maggio, speculated that Ari had been wrongly linked to the indigenous movement led by Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, a strident populist who has been critical of Washington's policies in the region.
But Ari said he has criticized Morales and would like to see Bolivia and the United States more closely linked: "I don't understand. I am considered to be very pro-America in Bolivia. I am in limbo. I have missed two semesters, and I may lose another."
Others around the world are in similar situations. In June, the ACLU said, Yoannis Milios, a professor from Greece, was detained and interrogated about his politics for several hours at JFK Airport before his visa was revoked. The group said that the academic, who was scheduled to present a paper at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was sent back to Athens.
Last year, Dora Maria Téllez, who was a Sandinista leader in the 1979 revolution that overthrew Nicaragua's U.S.-backed dictator, gave up a post at Harvard University after the government rejected her visa application. The ACLU has said that, although during the 1980s Téllez became a parliamentary leader and minister of health in Nicaragua, she was excluded because of her role in the revolution.
The highest-profile case is that of Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Swiss Islamic scholar whose visa was revoked. At the time, the government referred to a provision of the USA Patriot Act that applies to citizens who have "endorsed or espoused terrorism." Ramadan applied for a different visa. When this wasn't acted on, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the government, and a federal judge ordered in June that the State Department must act on his visa request.
The State Department said that it could not comment on an ongoing case but that the ideological-exclusion provision in the Patriot Act has rarely been used. Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services, said: "Contrary to suggestion, we know of only one case in which an applicant was denied a visa on the basis of the individual's having endorsed or espoused terrorism. The individual involved had a following of weapons-carrying individuals and made public speeches calling for the assassination of a high-level U.S. government official."
The ACLU's Jaffer said he found that assertion surprising. He said his organization had received information from the State Department through a Freedom of Information Act request that suggested the Patriot Act provision had been used more than once.
Nevertheless, he said, there was no question that foreign scholars were being increasingly targeted since Sept. 11, 2001. Jaffer said the United States could exclude controversial applicants without invoking the Patriot Act.
If the United States is excluding visa applicants based on ideology, there will be ramifications, said Robert M. O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
"It is not just the people who are turned down," he said. "If there are a number of sensitive and conscientious people who decide it is not worth coming at all and decide to go to another country, then we in the U.S. are the losers."