Censorship at the US border

The United States government is afraid of ideas. At least it seems that way at the border.

Over the past six years, numerous scholars, writers and human rights activists have found themselves suddenly barred from entering the US. Most happen to be vocal critics of Washington’s foreign policy, many are Muslim, some have participated in protests against the Iraq war or just ­happen to proclaim left-wing economic views.

For some, their visa applications languish indefinitely for no reason. Others have been permitted entry only after answering offensive questions about their political opinions. Some have arrived at a US airport only to learn that their visa has been “prudentially” revoked. Some even find themselves labelled a national security threat, suddenly banned based on vague or unspecified grounds, or because the US accuses them of “endorsing” terrorism. They are typically not told the factual basis for such accusations, and they are certainly not given a chance for rebuttal.

It’s called ideological exclusion—the practice of denying visas to people whose politics or views the US government dislikes. Ideological exclusion is a blunt form of censorship with global consequences.

Just ask Adam Habib. Until recently, Professor Habib, a deputy vice-­chancellor at the University of Johannesburg and a prominent critic of US policies, travelled to the US with ease; in fact, he lived there for years while pursuing his PhD. But in October 2006 the US government “prudentially” revoked his visa. What had changed since 2003 (his last visit to the US) remained a mystery. Habib then applied for a new visa, but the government let his application languish.

In fact, nothing happened until my organisation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), went to court to challenge his exclusion on behalf of the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights—all organisations that have invited Habib to speak at upcoming events and which have a right under the US Constitution to hear his views.

Rather than simply granting Habib a visa, the US has denied him one in the most disgraceful fashion. The state department claims Habib is barred because he has “engaged in terrorist activity”, but has provided no evidence to support this outrageous charge. The ACLU believes that Habib is being excluded not because he has done something wrong, but because of his political views and associations.

The US government should not be permitted, without a shred of evidence, to malign the reputations of respected international scholars and prevent Americans from engaging with them. For this reason, the ACLU has renewed its legal challenge to Habib’s exclusion, demanding that Washington justify its actions in court.

Many people have been victimised by the cowardly practice of ideological exclusion, including critics of US policy who previously entered the country without incident. For example, the US revoked a visa that would have permitted Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s leading scholars of Islam, from assuming a post at the University of Notre Dame, claiming he had “endorsed or espoused” terrorism. The government later retracted that accusation but Ramadan remains excluded to this day. Washington prevented Yoannis Milios, a Greek professor of Marxist economic thought, from delivering a paper at a New York university, after interrogating him about his political views; a new visa application he submitted in July 2006 remains in limbo. Riyadh Lafta, an Iraqi doctor and author of a controversial article about civilian casualties in Iraq, was forbidden from presenting a paper at the University of Washington as a result of his exclusion.

Numerous imams, including some from South Africa, have been turned away without any explanation. And South Africans with ties to the ANC notoriously face problems at the border because Washington once considered the party a terrorist organisation (indeed, it has been reported that even Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale and Sidney Mufamadi require special permission to enter the US). The list goes on.

Unfortunately, ideological exclusion is nothing new. During the Cold War, the US was notorious for excluding suspected communists. Among the many dangerous individuals excluded to protect national security were Nobel Laureates Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Doris Lessing, British novelist Graham Greene, Italian playwright Dario Fo, and Pierre Trudeau, who later became prime minister of Canada. Threats indeed.

National security should not to be used as a guise to silence critical or controversial views. By following a policy of ideological exclusion, the US government seems to be ignoring the hard lessons of history. When the Congress repealed the Cold War-era communist exclusion laws, it determined that “it is not in the interests of the United States to establish one standard of ideology for citizens and another for foreigners who wish to visit the United States”, and that ­ideological exclusion caused “the ­reputation of the United States as an open society, tolerant of divergent ideas” to suffer.

The imposition of an ideological litmus test at the border betrays those principles. What the US needs most is to be engaged with the world and open to criticism, not ­isolated from it.

Melissa Goodman is staff attorney with the ACLU’s national security project and represents Adam Habib

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