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Tyranny of the American Visa Regime

26 Feb

By James Harkin, The New York Times

LONDON – Procedures and processes, as everyone who has spent time waiting for permission to travel in authoritarian regimes knows, are what malevolent bureaucracies take refuge in when they wish to deliver a silent snub. The bureaucrats tell you: We are still waiting for news of your request and have no news either way! There are procedures to be followed! You will just have to be patient! It is out of our hands!

As a journalist who has reported on Syria and Iraq for the past five years, I am used to it. It goes with the territory. But because of my travels in Syria, under rules instituted in 2016 I am no longer able to claim the usual visa waiver that Irish citizens like me typically enjoy and now have to present myself for an interview at the American Embassy in London when I want to enter the United States.

The first sign that something was amiss came in April last year, when I was invited to attend an investigative reporting symposium in Berkeley, Calif. The promised post-interview visa didn’t come through in time. It remained “in process,” and I couldn’t board my flight.

A few months later, I was offered a fellowship at Harvard. I submitted by visa application several months before my expected date of travel. Yet my J1 educational visa stayed stubbornly “in process.” Another journey to the United States remained out of reach.

Graciously, Harvard allowed me to defer my fellowship in the hope of better news in the future. But these onerous travel restrictions on journalists, academics and students go to the heart of what kind of country the United States wants to be.

At one of my interviews at the Embassy, I was asked whether I had ever been fingerprinted. I explained that the only time was in  Turkey in January 2016 when I was detained for my reporting on the Syrian Kurds, and then expelled from the country. The amiable American official didn’t expect that to be a reason for trouble. He said everyone knew that Turkey’s authoritarian government has little tolerance for independent journalism.

Conversations with other journalists reporting on Syria and lawyers offered an explanation. Turkey and the United States routinely share low-level NATO intelligence. The Turkish government’s official reason for my expulsion, after a night in an airport cell, was “public security.”

The best guess of my fellow Syria journalists is that the information ended up being shared with the American authorities, whose systems then flagged me as a potential terrorist when I came in for the visa interview.

A growing number of journalists and academics are finding themselves unable to report and conduct research across the world as prickly governments use travel bans and visa delays – often in the name of national security – to limit their movements and block their entry.

For some of us, it is making it difficult to work. I now find myself banned from Turkey, unable to enter the United States and unable to get a journalist visa from the Syrian government. The Syrian and Turkish governments frequently deny passports and visas to intimidate and humiliate their own citizens, and to deter journalists from writing uncomfortable things.

I had expected better from the United States and think of the country as second to none in its egalitarian treatment of outsiders. Many of these restrictions, including the legislation that means that I can no longer claim the visa waiver, pre-date the Trump administration. But the more restrictive approach to immigration under Mr. Trump, and the closer scrutiny of visa applications as a result, have certainly made matters worse.

Date on journalists who have been excluded from the United States is difficult to come by. People prefer to seek behind-the-scenes assistance or simply wait. But the stories are trickling out.

In 2016 Reporters Without Borders highlighted the case of the Spanish journalist and historian Manuel Martorell, whose reporting on Kurdish issues appears to have led to his being refused a tourist visa to fly with his family to the United States. He eventually received a letter from the States Department informing him that his visa request had been denied thanks to alleged “terrorist activities.”

Karl Penhaul, a well-known British journalist reporting for the American press in Colombia, found himself unable to fly to the United States, most likely the result of flawed information received from an intelligence agency in Colombia about his alleged chumminess with the rebel group FARC, which he reported on extensively. A tourist visa application he subsequently submitted, he told me, has been “in process” since January 2014.

The Trump administration’s travel bans, incidents of racist violence and concerns about personal safety have decreased the number of international students coming to the United States. The number of arriving international students, according to a survey of 500 campuses by the Institute of International Education, declined an average 7 percent in fall 2017, with 45 percent of campuses reporting drops in new international enrollment.

If the United States continues to treat foreigners with the suspicion and condescension of an authoritarian regime, it will snuff out a good deal of its carefully accumulated expertise on the rest of the world. An atmosphere of openness and intellectual exchange is easily squandered and very difficult to get back.

The result may be a cycle of ignorance and missteps, which is bound to be damaging to American interests in the future. Even if the United States wants to retreat from the world, it still has to know what is going on there.