Ideology alone is not enough to bar entry to US, judge says

January 22, 2009

Government must explain why visas are denied to foreign scholars, ruling states. Jon Marcus reports

A court has reversed one of a series of decisions by the US Government to deny visas to international academics on ideological grounds.

The ruling, which could establish a precedent, says that officials must give a specific reason for refusing a scholar the right to enter the US. It comes in the case of Adam Habib, a South African political scientist and critic of the war in Iraq who was prevented from accepting invitations to speak before several American scholarly organisations.

Dr Habib, a professor of political science and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, lived for a time in the US while earning his doctorate from the City University of New York.

But when he tried to return in 2006, he was detained at JFK International Airport and deported without being told why.

Invited again last summer to speak before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, he was refused a visa by the US Consulate in Johannesburg, which said he had "engaged in terrorist activities" but did not elaborate. Dr Habib denies the allegation.

US organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sued the Government on Dr Habib's behalf, saying that a more specific reason must be given when a visa is denied. They also said that their right to free speech had been violated because they weren't allowed to hear and debate with him.

A federal judge, George A. O'Toole Jr, agreed, rejecting the US Government's request that the case be dismissed out of hand, although he required that Dr Habib be dropped as a plaintiff because as a non-citizen he is not protected by the free-speech provisions of the US Constitution.

The lawsuit is now proceeding to the fact-gathering stage.

Melissa Goodman, an attorney for the ACLU, said: "It's about whether the Government can prevent prominent scholars who are critics of US policies from speaking to US audiences. We're not saying that (it) has to let in everyone who's invited to speak. We're just saying that when you block scholarly exchange, you have to give a legitimate reason."

Between 2001 and the end of 2007, the latest date for which figures are available, at least 249 international scholars were refused entry into the US on ideological grounds, according to the ACLU and other groups that track the data.

"It is increasingly evident that scholars are being barred simply because the Government disfavours their politics," said Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP.

But the Government argues that American scholars can just as easily hear international academics speak by videoconference or other means, and the ruling suggests that it can still turn down visa requests simply by citing a reason.

Another judge in an earlier case pronounced that the Government had a right to deny a visa to Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan because it specifically alleged that he had given money to a group that was discovered to financially support the Palestinian Hamas movement. The ACLU is appealing the decision.

"The fact that it has become so difficult for so many scholars to get visas has changed the way American organisations plan conferences. A number have considered having their international conferences outside the US. I don't think (they) should have to go abroad to have a robust exchange of ideas," Ms Goodman said. "It damages our reputation when the US Government acts like it's afraid of ideas."

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