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Reports of some Iranian students being detained and deported from US airports

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There are a number of recent media reports of visa-holding Iranian students being stopped at US airports, and, in some cases, being denied entry to the United States
  • Others have been prevented from boarding planes to the US, in spite of having obtained US study visas
  • US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says that it is operating “under advanced security posture”

Iran sends tens of thousands of students abroad every year – including more than 12,000 to the US, making Iran the second-most important Middle Eastern market for US educators after only Saudi Arabia.

But tensions are high between the two countries following the US government’s assassination of the top Iranian military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, on 3 January, and Iran’s subsequent missile attack on two US forces airbases in Iraq. Hours after the strike, the Iranian military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 civilians, in what appears to be a tragic by-product of escalating military tensions in the region.

More recently, Iranian students with dreams of studying in the US are also paying a heavy price. There are growing reports of Iranian students with valid study visas being either detained by customs officials upon their arrival in the US and forced to leave the country or, in other cases, stopped from boarding flights headed to the US.

Detained then deported

For example, on 20 January, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, a visa-holding Iranian student headed for Northeastern University, was turned away at Boston airport and forced to leave the country via a flight to Paris. The New York Times reports that “flight attendants on the trip back held onto his cellphone and travel documents and refused to give them to him until he reached Paris.”

The situation is even more extraordinary in that Mr Hossein Abadi – who had already been studying in the US for two years – engaged a lawyer who then secured a court order to stay his removal from the US. However, either the timing or interpretation of that order failed to prevent US officials from putting him on a flight back out of the country. Northeastern University is attempting to help the student and return him to campus, but with little success:

“We still have not received a satisfactory explanation from Customs and Border Protection for this action. We believe that a clear explanation is needed, especially because the deportation took place after a 48-hour extension was granted by a federal judge. Only in the most extreme instances should students have their academic pursuits interrupted by government intervention.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counts at least 10 Iranian students who have been turned back at US airports since August 2019. Amin (who chose not to reveal his name to the New York Times) is one of them. He was stopped at a US airport, prevented from proceeding to his PhD programme at the University of Florida – deemed “inadmissible” because customs officials found that he had not disclosed a former school email address and a research paper he had authored on his visa application. During his detention at the Atlanta airport, Amin told the Times that, “he was placed in a chilly holding cell for six hours, then transported in cuffs and chains to an immigration detention facility in Georgia … the officers there ordered him to strip naked in front of them.”

The Times goes on to tell the stories of several other Iranian students refused entry, many who were forced to allow Customs and Border Protection officials into their social media accounts. The Los Angeles Times has also reported on nearly two dozen cases of Iranian students – again with valid visas – turning up at international airports only to be told they could not board their planes to the US.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the demand for graduate programmes abroad in Iran, many of the students in question are highly qualified and intending to begin or continue advanced degree studies or research in the United States.

Even so, there have also been many reports of incredibly long visa processing times and roadblocks for Iranian students, with “administrative processing” (i.e., additional screening) the typical answer provided for the waits, which can be as long as one year.

Student guidance published by the University of Maryland explains that, “Administrative processing is more common for academic programmes considered to be sensitive to US national security, such as Biotechnology or certain kinds of Engineering. Individuals that are citizens of countries considered by the US State Department to be state sponsors of terrorism can typically expect to receive administrative processing, and should apply early to avoid extensive delays to their visa application. The length of processing time varies, but can be as short as a week or as long as multiple months.” (Editor’s note: the US State Department has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since January 1984, and it remains one of only four countries in the world to be so designated.)

What customs officials are saying

The CBP generally doesn’t comment on individual cases. It has said in the case of Mr Hossein Abadi, for example, that “it was not at liberty to discuss an individual’s processing, and that it prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion” but that it “is operating with an enhanced security posture.”

The agency adds:

“Every applicant for admission is subject to inspection upon arrival in the United States. The issuance of a visa or participation in the visa waiver program does not guarantee entry to the United States. Upon arrival at Logan Airport on Sunday, 19 January, [Hossein Abadi] was deemed inadmissible and processed for expedited removal and return to his place of departure. During today’s hearing, the court ruled that the matter is now moot as the subject was never admitted into the United States, the subject is no longer in custody, and the court does not have jurisdiction to order his return.”

Early response

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said,

“Such absolutely discriminatory measures that only happen over people’s race, nationality or religion are against international human rights laws and principles. These individuals were questioned by America’s border security over their political views and beliefs, and their social media accounts were forcefully entered.”

And US immigration lawyer David Ware explained to Inside Higher Ed how it is even possible for an international student to be given a visa to enter the US and then be denied entry:

“Under our law, CBP has a second bite at the apple to determine admissibility. The consulate has the first bite in the apple, and they put the person through a security check. The consulate determined through various agencies of the US that this person was not a risk to US security. Then CBP turns around and revokes their visa and sends them home. Usually, what CBP will tell you is something came up in the encounter with the CBP officer in the US that indicated to the CBP officer that the visa had been erroneously granted, and there was indeed some problem with the individual. It could have been a security issue, or it could have been some other issue.”

Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, adds:

“I certainly think the US is doing long-term damage to our ability to recruit really bright people, bring them here and have them excel in institutions of higher learning across the country. It’s likely that a lot of brilliant people are going to go to Canada, they’re going to go to Europe, they’re going to go elsewhere because our national policy is one of discrimination against Iranians.”

An important market

Iran is the 13th leading sending market for the US, with most Iranians enrolled in graduate studies. Their numbers declined by 5% in 2018/19 according to the latest Open Doors report.

Any further declines will be of concern to US higher education, especially given that the number of new international students enrolling in US institutions has been falling in recent years. Even with that recent trend, however, the US remains the number one study abroad destination in the world.

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