Dozens of academic, free-speech, and civil-rights organizations today sent top officials in the Obama administration a letter urging them to end the federal government’s practice of denying visas to foreign scholars, writers, artists, and activists based on ideology.
The letter, which was addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, argues that the State and Homeland Security Departments have harmed the nation’s own interests by barring dozens of prominent intellectuals over the past eight years based on their ideas, political views, and associations.
A 2007 Chronicle report on the practice, adopted in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, found that some academic and civil-liberties groups believed the federal government had stepped up its ideology-based exclusion of foreign intellectuals in recent years. Among the academics barred entry were scholars such as Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen and leading Islamic intellectual who had been hired by the University of Notre Dame, and Adam Habib, a prominent South African political commentator who got only as far as a New York airport on a trip to the United States to meet with scholars and federal officials.
Many of those excluded had sought to teach at American colleges, speak to American audiences, or attend academic conferences in the United States.
“While the government plainly has an interest in excluding foreign nationals who present a threat to national security, no legitimate interest is served by the exclusion of foreign nationals on ideological grounds,” the letter says. “To the contrary, ideological exclusion impoverishes academic and political debate inside the United States. It sends the message to the world that our country is more interested in silencing than engaging its critics. It undermines our ability to support political dissidents in other countries.”
In a statement released today to publicize the letter, Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said “ideological exclusion is a petty and misguided practice that the Obama administration should retire immediately.” Among the other groups that signed the letter are the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of Research Libraries, the Center for Campus Free Speech, the Middle East Studies Association, and the National Education Association.
President Obama’s administration has not yet indicated whether it will alter ideological-exclusion policies authorized in 2001 under the USA Patriot Act. The letter asks it to evaluate applicants for admission to the United States “on the basis of their actions rather than their political beliefs and associations,” and to reconsider the denial of entry to scholars whose actions do not pose a clear national-security threat.
The letter also urges the administration to “immediately revisit” the cases of seven scholars, including Mr. Habib and Mr. Ramadan.
The letter comes one week before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging Mr. Ramadan’s exclusion. Mr. Ramadan and his ACLU lawyers are appealing a lower court’s 2007 decision holding that the denial of his visa was justified because he had donated money to an organization that passed funds on to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. —Peter Schmidt