Travelers with Muslim names find themselves fighting for U.S. visas

By Edward Cody
washington post foreign service
Thursday, April 1, 2010

LYON, FRANCE -- The clean-cut young Frenchman seemed to have everything going for him. A graduate of an elite French engineering school, he had interned at the upper-crust Rothschild bank in Paris, handled wealth management for a while on Wall Street and was accepted for a prestigious master's degree program at the University of California at Berkeley.

Except for one thing: His name was Mohamed Youcef Mami.

The State Department held up his student visa for more than two months for "administrative processing," which according to diplomats is the euphemism-of-art for a check against multiple watch lists maintained by intelligence agencies in Washington designed to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the United States.

Since President Obama scolded the agencies for overlooking warning flags against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, the checks have been reinforced and the lists have grown. With that comes a higher likelihood of "administrative processing" for visa applicants whose names may resemble those of terrorist suspects but who are "guilty" of nothing more than having Muslim parents.

While the computers whirred and security bureaucrats scrutinized their lists, Mami's nonrefundable flight from Lyon to San Francisco departed March 18 without him, and nobody would tell him why. As a result of the delay, he missed orientation and the first week of his financial engineering courses at Berkeley. After dozens of increasingly desperate telephone calls, e-mails and letters, Mami, 27, had concluded that he was being discriminated against because of his name and that Obama's speech in Cairo calling for friendship with the Muslim world was hollow PR.

The waiting ended Wednesday, and Mami's world was suddenly not the same. Two days after The Washington Post inquired about Mami's case, the U.S. Embassy in Paris called and told him the visa was on the way. His ordeal over, Mami pounced on the Internet to look for a cheap flight to San Francisco, vowing to be in class in Berkeley by Monday morning.

"It is a happy ending, just like in Hollywood," he said after hearing the news. "I'm not going to bear a grudge. I'm sure I'll have so much to do to get my master's at Berkeley that I'll soon forget this visa problem."

Not all cases end so happily. Said Mahrane, a French national born in Algeria and brought up in France, applied for a journalist's visa to accompany President Nicolas Sarkozy to Washington this week as a correspondent for the weekly newsmagazine Le Point. His colleagues from other publications -- with traditional French names -- got their visas in a couple of days. But Mahrane's never came through.

When the departure date approached, he said, Sarkozy's foreign policy adviser, Jean-David Levitte, called the U.S. Embassy to point out that Mahrane was a well-known Paris journalist with Sarkozy as his beat. But still there was no visa and no explanation. Sarkozy and his press entourage took off on schedule, but Mahrane had to stay behind.

"I never got an answer," he said, "much less a visa."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, said he could not comment on individual cases but added that sometimes a name goes into the security check system and gets a hit because, as is frequently the case with Muslims, it is a common name. "This does not necessarily mean that this is the person who is really in the database," he said.

For Mami, the waiting began Jan. 28, when he went to Paris for a standard visa interview by a consular officer. After routine questions, the officer told him he would have to wait two or three weeks for "administrative processing," Mami recalled. When he asked what that meant, he said, the officer told him he was not authorized to discuss it.

Mami said at first he reasoned that the delay would not be a problem because orientation classes at Berkeley were to begin March 22. But when the visa had still not arrived by Feb. 15, he sent a registered letter to the embassy inquiring about the delay. The next day, a woman called and said such delays were common and could last weeks or even months, he said.

That was the beginning of more than a month of telephone calls, e-mails and letters. The graduate school at Berkeley wrote a letter to the consulate urging that the visa be granted, but still no word came. Increasingly desperate, Mami struck out in every direction. Last Thursday, he wrote letters to Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Lyon Mayor GĂ©rard Collomb and Clinton's representatives for scientific exchanges with the Muslim world.

To all, he described his situation and begged for their intervention, but he got no immediate reply. Feinstein's office in San Francisco, which Mami also contacted by phone and e-mail, promised to make inquiries and let him know the outcome. But Mami did not hear back. The next day he e-mailed The Post bureau in Paris.

Staff writer Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.


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