Visa restrictions limit academic freedom

A few months ago, New York University Professor Andrew Ross was denied entry to the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, on ideological grounds. The incident put academic freedom in the Arab World under a microscope, but the coverage failed to recognise that the US has similarly unethical restrictions for non-citizen scholars.

Each year many students, faculty and independent scholars are denied entrance to the US based on economic, national, age and other forms of discrimination. These US visa policies discriminate exclusively against citizens of Latin America, Asia, Africa and nations of Muslim majority. The US visa controls are comparable to UAE’s in their effect on academic freedom.

How do visa policies restrict conference attendance?

This year the Latin American Studies Association, or LASA, conference was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. More than a thousand scholars from Latin American institutions of higher education participated – nearly all of whom had to secure a US visa in order to attend.

Citizenship and visa required for US conferences are as follows:
  • • Europe (European Economic Community) 0%
  • • Australia, New Zealand, Canada 0%
  • • Asia 96%
  • • Latin America (save Puerto Rico) 98%
  • • Africa 100%
  • • Muslim-majority nations 100%.
The US Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of several nations – including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all of the European Economic Community – to enter the US for conferences (or any other reason) with only a passport.

As Latin America is largely excluded from this privileged status, along with the submission of abstracts and panel proposals for LASA, many had to apply for visas. Before boarding a plane to San Juan, each scholar was required to pass an in-person exam at the US consulate or embassy with jurisdiction over their place of residence (this may be in another country).

As there is no special visa for scholarly events, conference participants are required to procure a non-immigrant B1/2 visa. The application charge is US$160 plus US$12 to schedule an exam; the fees are not returned regardless of whether a visa is granted or denied. In some nations, 75% of B1/2 visa applications are rejected.

During my stint on the faculty at Universidad del Azuay in Cuenca, Ecuador, several colleagues and students applied for B1/2 visas to attend a conference in Florida. I accompanied them to the US consulate in Guayaquil and spent several weeks there observing interviews and collecting data from people who had just finished visa exams.

I did surveys and had conversations about some practical matters regarding the personal interviews, including the nature of the questions posed, the required documents and the language proficiency of adjudicators.

What is it like to take a visa exam?

The US consulate in Guayaquil – a coastal city, 150 miles south of the equator – has jurisdiction over much of the Ecuadorian coast and southern highlands region. Each business day hundreds of candidates line up on the street outside the building in direct sunlight. Cottage industries have emerged to cool and shade applicants and ensure that they don’t fall over from dehydration.

One by one, they file into the fore-chamber of the building where officers register passports, take fingerprints and mugshots and document that their US$172 in fees has been paid in advance. The waiting time can be eight to 10 hours. Including travel to Guayaquil, for scholars from Cuenca and points south of there, the process usually takes three days.

The examination rooms at the two US State Department missions in Ecuador (Quito and Guayaquil) are actually booths. They are about six feet high and three feet wide. A US Foreign Service Officer sits on a platform 18 inches above the interviewee and behind a bulletproof glass divider. Questions are via intercom.

The exam is unremarkable: an applicant enters; there’s a short greeting. The adjudicator looks her/him up and down. Sometimes there is a question or two about their intentions in the US. In the nine years I’ve studied these exchanges, the longest interview I observed was about five minutes. Many are under 30 seconds. The body language of the applicant indicates the decision immediately. Each adjudicator does up to 300 per day.

Adjudicators’ lack of language proficiency

Visa adjudicator is among the entry-level positions in the Foreign Service – and interviewers are often new arrivals to the countries where they work. None of the adjudicators I met or observed in Ecuador were fluent in Spanish – despite conducting interviews in that language – and only one demonstrated what I would describe as a working proficiency.

None would converse with me in Spanish, despite my attempts to do so. Each had had at least five months of language training, or about one semester of study, before they began making visa decisions.

On a diplomatic cable released on Wikileaks, former Ecuador Consular chief Ruta D Elvikis complained that many adjudicators could not speak or understand the language in which they interviewed: “Consular officers in the field would greatly benefit from additional training, even if only online… Post would further recommend that [adjudicators] receive 30 weeks of language rather than 24. Solid knowledge of language is absolutely necessary at the visa window and, despite the… language programme, 24 weeks is sometimes not enough time.”

Applicants are instructed to bring invitations to the US, such as conference paper confirmations; pay stubs; employment contracts; property deeds and similar documents. However, adjudicators are not required to – and often do not – review them.

Many arrive at the consulate with stacks of economic and social documents, all notarised and painstakingly prepared and these are regularly not seen by anyone: decisions are often based on the applicant’s supposed profile.

Visa rejection profiles

Adjudicators profile applicants by perceived age, gender, marital status and finances. Visa Officer Jessica Vaughn noted: “Because officers have a limited time in which to make a decision – about two to three minutes... they must rely on known or assumed patterns of behaviour, or profiles, to help them decide to issue or refuse a visa.”

Profiles are based on how a person looks at first sight. “It is very difficult for a young, single adult to qualify for a visa,” said Vaughn, “and nearly impossible for someone who is unemployed”. She goes on to say that because officers have such a short time to make a decision “they cannot investigate each applicant”. The rejections, according to Vaughn, are based on assumptions because, in reality, “posts have little hard evidence on which to formulate these profiles”.

Three of my four colleagues who applied for visas were approved and eventually attended the event in Florida. The rejected applicant was an unmarried male who had just finished his studies. He was in his late 20s and unemployed. He described the experience as “traumatic”, “belittling” and “dehumanising”.

Another colleague was a finalist for an assistant professorship in Utah in the US and required the same visa in order to travel to the campus interview. He said he was far more nervous during the visa exam than the job interview itself – fortunately, he was employed and married when he applied. He eventually got a visa and the appointment.

I discussed applicant-profiling with Gregory Keller, a vice consul and adjudicator at Guayaquil (HM: Herlihy-Mera, GK: Keller):

HM: Decisions are often based on an applicant’s age and economic status?
GK: Yes. The unemployed and poor are generally not eligible for visas.

HM: People are rejected because they are unemployed?
GK: Yes and no. People are rejected because they cannot prove that they intend to return to Ecuador. In an interview the applicant must establish sufficient ties to their place of residence, which is very difficult for poor or unemployed people to do. Ties are things like pay stubs, property deeds – evidence that they would come back.

HM: Poor and unemployed Europeans and Canadians are not subjected to this scrutiny. These people are rejected based on being Ecuadorian and single or unemployed. In fact the nationality determines a person’s status. Is that right?
GK: We follow the law. We adjudicate Ecuadorians who apply for visas. The poor and people in their 20s are often not eligible. People from Europe and Canada are in a different situation.

Some officials in Washington have offered more nuanced takes on applicant profiling. Public Affairs Secretary Timothy F Ponce said that the procedural uses of profiles “do not reflect official department policy”.

Many adjudicators have levelled serious criticism of these visa policies: “There are no quality control measures,” said adjudicator David Seminara, “evidenced by the fact that the State Department never requires posts to conduct visa validation studies.”

He said adjudicators “are evaluated on how many applicants they interview and how courteous they are to applicants, not on the quality or correctness of the decisions they make… managers value speed over sound decisions.”

Responses from interviewees

A general sentiment in the post-interview surveys I collected was that the visa exams make people feel degraded and insignificant. The decisions seem arbitrary and capricious. “The consul talks to you like you’ve done something seriously wrong,” said one woman. “We are treated like cattle.”

Many said to me in person and in written surveys that the adjudicators could not communicate in Spanish. “The words the interviewer said were so mispronounced,” said one man, “that at first I didn’t realise she was saying my name. The consul couldn’t understand me at all when I spoke. I had to repeat every single thing again and again.”

The most common comments in Quito and Guayaquil included:
  • • Adjudicators cannot speak or understand Spanish well enough to make informed decisions.
  • • Adjudicators act on whims.
  • • Decisions seem to be based on how the American feels that day.
  • • The interview is too short for enough information to be exchanged.
  • • Consuls do not understand the local culture or language, and they often misunderstand people because of this.
  • • Consuls are arrogant and speak condescendingly to applicants.
  • • Consuls do not allow applicants an adequate opportunity to express themselves.
I asked State Department spokesperson Kenneth Chávez about the language issue: “What might an applicant do if the adjudicator cannot understand the language of the interview?” His response: “The applicant can re-apply.”

Reapplying, of course, is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming and a previous visa rejection – albeit from an adjudicator who could not communicate in the language in which the interview was conducted – is stamped onto all subsequent applications, making the possibilities for eventually receiving a visa even more remote.

Because interviews do not occur in the US, there is no governmental regulation. That’s right: there is no congressional oversight of visa procedures. In fact, the State Department sub-agencies are not funded by taxpayers or the federal government but by fees they charge non-US citizens for interviews and other services. That means: yes, the US$172 payment for a one-minute interview goes towards the salary of the adjudicator.

Institutionalising inequality

Beyond institutionalising inequality and its worldwide hierarchy of nationalities, the visa procedure is prohibitively expensive, unfair and exclusionary. It has many unintended consequences for academic studies: the law prescribes that only academics from specific economic, national and social backgrounds may participate in US scholarly events.

This is a serious academic freedom issue. US policy is clear: non-citizen scholars – who are not citizens of Visa Waiver Program nations – who are poor, unemployed or in their 20s, cannot attend conferences in the US.

Despite the Federal Protections Against National Origin Discrimination, the US visa system discriminates against specific nationalities. Candidates are often denied entry not as a result of their own shortcomings but due to the ethically bankrupt nature of the exam itself.

It appears that very few US scholars are aware of how the government regularly denies academics entry on unethical grounds. The general ignorance about this situation has resulted in some strange resolutions about visas from professional associations, like the Modern Language Association, or MLA, and the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, both of which cite their opposition to ideological exclusion.

There’s no language about other forms of discrimination. Why is this? It is likely because the scholars denied entry who receive media attention are limited to those rejected on ideological grounds, which obfuscates the widespread gravity of visa discrimination based on nationality, age, marital and economic status. Because there is very little knowledge, there is very little action.

At the present time the Caribbean Chapter of the College English Association, housed at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, appears to be the only scholarly association in the US political space that attempts to account for visa discrimination through fee structure (scholars with B1/2 visas have fee waivers) and travel grants (available only to scholars with B1/2 visas).

Until the US Visa Waiver Program is abolished or the US visa requirements are made universal for all non-citizens, LASA, MLA, AAUP and all other academic societies should hold their annual events in nations where visa policies are equitable for all regardless of citizenship.

If the annual conventions are to be held in the US political space, all visa-applicant scholars should receive a US$172 fee waiver, or other monetary credit, in addition to travel grants that are available only to visa-applicant scholars.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is president of the College English Association – Caribbean Chapter, and a member of the humanities department at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, where he is distinguished researcher. His books include In Paris or Paname: Hemingway's expatriate nationalism (2011) and Paris in American Literatures: On distance as a literary resource (2013) which has just been re-released in paperback. Herlihy-Mera has work forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies, The Minnesota Review, and Comparative American Studies. He is interested in the aesthetics of migration and the psychological outcomes of cultural displacement.