ACLU Rebukes U.S. Government for Failing to Act on Visa Request of South African Scholar

August 10, 2007 12:00 am

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U.S. Policy of Ideological Exclusion Harms Citizens, ACLU Says

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today criticized the State Department for failing to respond to a visa application by South African scholar Adam Habib. The ACLU said the government’s actions suggest the Bush administration is excluding Habib because it disagrees with his politics.

“The Bush administration is using immigration law to censor speech at the border and keep scholars and experts whose views the government disfavors from joining the political and academic debate in this country,” said Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project. “By excluding experts like Mr. Habib, the government is sending the message that America is afraid of critical thought.”

Habib is a renowned scholar, sought after analyst, and the Executive Director of the Human Science Research Council’s Program on Democracy and Governance. He is also a Muslim of Indian descent who has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and certain U.S. terrorism-related policies. Until the government suddenly revoked his visa last October without explanation, he had never had any trouble entering the United States; in fact, Habib lived in New York while earning his PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York.

Habib applied for a new visa in order to travel to the U.S. for an upcoming speaking engagement at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association on August 11. He was invited to speak on a panel of domestic and international scholars addressing the topic of “Globalization and Resistance.” However, because the State Department has failed to even give Habib an answer to his visa request, Habib will not be able to participate at the meeting.

Over the past few years, the government has prevented numerous scholars like Habib from speaking with U.S. audiences simply by failing to make a decision on their visa applications in time for U.S. events, leaving U.S. conference organizers and audience members unable to engage in discussion and debate with the scholars.

Habib’s visa was first revoked on October 21, 2006 when he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Habib had been invited to attend a series of meetings with several institutions including the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Bank, Columbia University and the Gates Foundation. When he landed, Habib was detained and spent seven hours being interrogated about his views and links to terrorism. He was then asked if he had ever been questioned or interrogated before. Habib told them he had been interrogated in South Africa during the apartheid regime for speaking out against racism and abuse. The U. S. government then revoked Habib’s visa, and armed guards escorted him to a plane and deported him back to South Africa.

The ban on Habib’s admission to the United States has been extended to his wife and two young sons, ages 7 and 11. Habib’s 11-year-old son, who was invited to attend the U.S.’s two-week People to People Junior Ambassadors Program, was forced to decline the invitation. In protest, his school cancelled the entire trip. Despite numerous efforts to obtain some explanation for why Habib and his family’s visas were revoked, the U.S. government never explained its actions.

“I am deeply disappointed that I was denied an opportunity to critically engage with colleagues and fellow academics. All of us, American, South African and others should be very worried when a government, especially one that professes a commitment to democracy, feels so fragile that they are compelled to exclude scholars with critical views from entering their country,” Habib said. “If the U.S. government continues to act in such an undemocratic manner, refusing to allow in outsiders who disagree with administration policy, it will continue to alienate large portions of the world. Thankfully, there are many U.S. citizens and institutions who stand up to such arbitrary behavior. It is they who represent the best traditions of what it means to be American.”

The ACLU says that the government’s practice of ideological exclusion impairs the First Amendment rights of Americans by preventing them from engaging in face-to-face dialogue and debate with foreign scholars whose speech the government disfavors. In 2006 the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of U.S. academic groups and Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss intellectual who was denied admission to the United States under the government’s ideological exclusion provision. Ramadan is widely regarded as a leading scholar of the Muslim world. When the government revoked his visa in 2004, he was prevented from assuming a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame.

The ideological exclusion provision is nominally aimed at those who “espouse or endorse terrorist activity,” but it is vaguely written and easily manipulated, said the ACLU. The provision could readily be used to exclude foreign scholars who study controversial matters such as terrorism and the concept of “jihad” in Islam. In fact, the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual interprets the provision to apply to foreign nationals who have voiced “irresponsible expressions of opinion.”

The Ramadan case, American Academy of Religion v. Chertoff, is pending in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan.

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