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Banned From America For Political Views? (UPDATED)

Nusrat Choudhury,
Former Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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October 24, 2013

UPDATE (11/19/2013): Following a delay of more than year and a half, the State Department last week finally granted Kerim Yildiz, a U.K. citizen and advocate for Kurdish human rights, a visa to travel to the United States. The blog post below, from last month, details Yildiz’s problem getting a visa. (More info here from Inside Higher Education, which ran a story about Yildiz.)

We applaud the State Department’s decision and hope that it signals a commitment to ending any practice of delaying or denying visas to foreign human rights advocates or scholars because of their political views. The question remains why Yildiz, a respected human rights advocate who traveled to the United States for years without problems, has faced two lengthy delays in securing visas since 2011. Nor do we know why this most recent delay lasted more than 19 months, or why the government stalled for five months after it said it would issue Yildiz a visa.

While we don’t know the answer to those questions, we do know that American audiences have a constitutional right to debate, speak to, and hear from human rights advocates like Yildiz. And we look forward to exercising that right during Yildiz’s trip to the United States this winter.

British citizen Kerim Yildiz, a leading London-based human rights advocate for the Kurdish people, has been waiting for more than a year and a half for a visa for travel to the United States to speak at Harvard, the ACLU, and two prominent foundations. Today, the ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, and the PEN America Center sent a letter to the Departments of State and Homeland Security protesting this extraordinarily long delay without explanation. (You can read the letter here.) This is the second such delay, and we worry that the government’s actions relate to Yildiz’s human rights advocacy.

Our organizations have previously protested the practice of ideological exclusion, in which foreign nationals are denied entry to the United States because our government does not agree with their political views. This practice infringes on the First Amendment rights of Americans who would like to meet with these individuals, hear their views, and engage them in debate. In the past, the ACLU has brought lawsuits on behalf of Professor Tariq Ramadan and Professor Adam Habib, and our organizations have sent letters to the State Department expressing our concern over the apparent exclusion of numerous individuals, including a 2011 letter on behalf of Yildiz, who is now the executive director of the Democratic Progress Institute.

For two decades, Yildiz was a frequent visitor to the United States, where he lectured at American universities and met with U.S. officials to discuss Kurdish human rights. That was until 2010, when Yildiz applied for a visa to travel to the United States to speak to American audiences and receive a prestigious award. In September 2011, our organizations protested the State Department’s nearly year-long delay in ruling on Yildiz’s visa application. Soon thereafter, the department finally granted Yildiz a visa—just as it did in the other cases that we protested. Yildiz had a smooth visit.

Now, two years later, Yildiz has again found himself waiting. After applying for a tourist visa in March 2012, the U.S. Embassy in London informed him in May 2013 that his visa application was denied on national security grounds but that “the Department of State has authorized a waiver of this ineligibility.” Although more than five months have passed since then – and more than 19 months since his initial application – Yildiz is still waiting.

Yildiz is a respected human rights advocate, and we know of no reason why he should be ineligible for a visa. But even if there were such a reason, he merits the waiver that the State Department apparently granted him. Permitting him to visit our country would undoubtedly serve the public interest: there is no evidence that Yildiz presents a threat to the United States – to the contrary, he has collaborated with many American academics and human rights researchers in the past – and the U.S. audiences that have invited him to speak here have a right to hear his views and to debate him.

We can’t help but suspect that the State Department’s decision to deem Yildiz ineligible for a visa and its long delay in issuing him a visa even after granting him a waiver of ineligibility is because of his legitimate advocacy on issues of Kurdish human rights. But his exclusion from the United States is not only unfair to him, it also infringes the constitutional rights of Americans who wish to learn from and engage in dialogue with him.

We urge the Departments of State and Homeland Security to act immediately and to issue Yildiz a visa or publicly explain the reasons for his exclusion from the United States.

Learn more about ideological exclusion by checking out this timeline of others who have been excluded in the past.

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