Letters to the Editor

On the US Visa Waiver Program

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, January 2016

To the editor:

In 2006, Waskar Ari, a citizen of Bolivia and a Georgetown PhD, was denied an academic visa on ideological grounds. Linda Kerber, Barbara Weinstein, and James Sheehan (then AHA president, president- elect, and past president) wrote to Condoleezza Rice in forceful disapproval. While their letter condemned ideological denials, it did not oppose the more common— and arguably more unethical—forms of discrimination used to deny entry to scholars. Academics are frequently denied entry based on age, social and economic status, and nation of origin. Many unethical denials stem from the Visa Waiver Program, which allows scholars with specific citizenships to enter for conferences, job interviews, and other nonimmigrant reasons, with a passport.

Table with headers: "Citizenships" and "Visa required to attend annual meeting"

Scholars outside that privileged cohort must pass an in-person exam (at an embassy or consulate) for the same right of entry. Fees ($160, plus an issuance fee of up to $12) are not reimbursed, regardless of whether a visa is granted or denied. Exams generally last 30–90 seconds, and in some nations 75 percent of applicants are rejected. “Because officers have a limited time in which to make a decision,” notes adjudicator Jessica Vaughn, “they must rely on known or assumed patterns of behavior, or profiles, to help them decide to issue or refuse a visa.” Some officials are forthright on denials: “It is very difficult for a young, single adult to qualify for a visa,” says Vaughn, “and nearly impossible for someone who is unemployed.”

Tope Bada, a Nigerian visa consultant, commented: “The visa applicant has no say. They expect you to pay your visa fee, queue up like a lamb to the slaughter, and take whatever decision is handed down to you without any contention or question.” Ari was fortunate to have the support of AHA officers who questioned the State Department publicly. Why is it that Bada’s clients, many of whom are in the same circumstance, don’t? It appears that Ari’s case received attention as a function of his connections to social circles in the US academy. (Weinstein and Kerber both learned of the case through colleagues, not Ari personally.) This circumstance raises the issue of fairness for scholars denied visas who lack the social capital of a Georgetown PhD.

I wrote to the signers of the 2006 petition to inquire why their letter of support was so selective. Barbara Weinstein said the letter was constructed as such because “the AHA is not primarily an advocacy organization.” That academics with certain citizenships are charged up to $172 and obliged to travel great distances (sometimes to other countries) to take exams so that they may attend the AHA annual meeting is not only unacceptable from an advocacy standpoint, it’s also a serious academic freedom issue. Héctor Huyke, professor of philosophy at Universidad de Puerto Rico, said of Latin American academics in the United States, “No tienen voz. Por eso sus ideas no cuentan.” (They have no voice. Because of that, their ideas don’t matter.)

If all Mississippians, left-handed people, single fathers, or any targeted demographic (like a nationality or group thereof ) were required to take an exam and pay a fee to attend the annual meeting, there would be an uproar. AHA’s support of scholars denied visas is exceptionalist and arguably elitist, and it fails to address the scale of the institutionalized discrimination. Supporting one elite scholar in a sense obfuscates the gravity of the problem: one case is not representative, but many in the academy simply aren’t aware that the visa system treats academics differently based on citizenship or that fees are outrageous and scaled by nationality, or that visa exams are studies in profiling. I don’t believe the signers of the 2006 letter (or AHA presidents since) tacitly support denying entry to academics who do not enjoy visa waivers or that they believe conference participation should be de facto more difficult for some non-US citizens than others.

A public statement saying as much would take less time to compose than the e-mails I’ve exchanged with former AHA presidents recently.

AHA presidents, sitting and past, should petition the government to:

  • Abolish the Visa Waiver Program.
  • Initiate visa policies that treat scholars (and all people) equally regardless of citizenship.
  • Make academic (and all other) visa adjudications transparent.

Until visa policies treat scholars equally, the AHA should:

  • Publish a standing letter to the government in opposition to visa denials based on ideological, age, national-origin, economic, and social-status grounds.
  • Implement waivers of up to $172 for visa-applicant scholars who attend the AHA annual meeting.
  • Encourage universities to compensate visa-applicant candidates up to $172 for campus interviews.
  • Invite scholars who require visas to present conference papers via Skype.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera
Universidad de Puerto Rico


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