Today the ACLU and PEN American Center asked the State Department to speed the issuance of a visa to Ghassan Zaqtan, a widely-published and internationally respected poet and writer who had intended to begin a two-week book tour for his new collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, yesterday.
Mr. Zaqtan applied for a visa on March 7, 2012 at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and was told at the time that he would receive his visa within two weeks. Four weeks later, Mr. Zaqtan has yet to receive a response. Without a visa, Mr. Zaqtan cannot visit the United States, and the American readers who have invited him to the United States cannot meet with him and hear him speak.
In the letter sent today, the ACLU and PEN acknowledge the State Department’s previous efforts to protect the free exchange of ideas across international borders but call the Department’s attention to Mr. Zaqtan’s case:
We have been grateful for the support of the State Department in ensuring that international writers and scholars are welcome in the United States, and for its commitment, as outlined in a January 13, 2011 letter to our organizations, to give “significant and sympathetic weight” to those seeking to enter the U.S. to fulfill speaking engagements, attend conferences, “or for similar expressive or educational activities.” Because Mr. Zaqtan’s planned book tour, organized in honor of the U.S. publication of his latest collection of poetry, falls so squarely within this area of declared interest, we wanted to make sure you were aware of this troubling delay in visa processing.
Citing the First Amendment rights of Americans who have invited Mr. Zaqtan to visit the United States, the ACLU and PEN ask the State Department to process Mr. Zaqtan’s visa immediately.
As organizations that share this commitment to open cultural exchange and a belief that such exchanges both fulfill the First Amendment right of Americans to engage with their international counterparts and strengthen America’s international standing, we respectfully request that processing of Mr. Zaqtan’s visa application be completed as a matter of urgency, so that he can participate in the remainder of his scheduled tour.
During the Bush administration, the ACLU brought several lawsuits challenging the denial of visas to foreign scholars who were perceived to be critics of American foreign policy. To its credit, the Obama administration settled some of these cases and issued visas to University of Oxford Professor Tariq Ramadan and South African political commentator Professor Adam Habib. The ACLU later appealed to the State Department to issue visas to Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya and Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, and the State Department eventually did so.
To learn more about these issues, please visit the ACLU’s page on ideological exclusion.