An Unreasonable Request

A graduate student should not have to return to Iraq to get back into the U.S.

“Go back to Baghdad” is a request so ludicrous that it is almost comical. But that is exactly what the United States told Ph.D. candidate Omar al-Dewachi—a native Iraqi who has already undergone extensive background checks and been admitted to the U.S.—when he presented a Hussein-era passport. We fully support policies designed to increase national security and the rigid rules that come with them, but for cases as unusual as al-Dewachi’s—going back to Baghdad is not something a rational person would choose to do—exceptions should be made.

When al-Dewachi went to England to do field research for his dissertation on displaced Iraqis, he could not have expected to become essentially stateless. A Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology, al-Dewachi has been studying at Harvard since 2001 with a strict, single-entry visa. The U.S. applied such stringent rules because under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq was viewed as a “state supporting terrorism.” But regime change failed to upgrade al-Dewachi’s status; in fact, it worsened. Claiming the “N” series passports issued under Hussein no longer meet “international security standards,” the U.S. has denied him reentry despite re-issuing him a visa on Jan. 31.

It is unclear exactly what hoops Iraqi students wishing to study in the United States must jump through in order to be trusted. The restrictive visas already issued to students after exhaustive background checks are now considered insufficient. Apparently the U.S. was being too lax by granting al-Dewachi only single-entry visas and forbidding him to leave the country for the first three years of his stay. Five years ago, under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the U.S. did not consider al-Dewachi enough of a security risk to deny him a visa. Yet now, with Iraq a democracy, the U.S. feels sufficiently threatened to nullify its former approvals and deny this legitimate student reentry.

Worse, the only way al-Dewachi can receive an acceptable “G” series passport is to return to Baghdad, a city torn apart by the war incited by the U.S., the very nation denying him a safe place to live and work. In an e-mail al-Dewachi wrote that, “the U.S. State Department has declared bureaucratic war on Iraqi citizens. The message is that we are not welcome anymore, even when we have legitimate and formal reasons, such as being students at respectable universities.”

The State Department does, however, have reasonable concerns about letting in people who may be dangerous into the United States. American foreign policy has made Iraq a haven for terrorists, and the government’s caution in dealing with Iraqi immigrants seems warranted.

However, exceptions should be made for extreme cases like al-Dewachi’s; he has already undergone background checks and received a visa multiple times. Telling al-Dewachi to go back to Iraq is simply too cruel.

Al-Dewachi’s case also underscores a greater problem: The U.S. can be hostile to students from foreign countries that are not close allies. American universities have long been the schools of choice for top students from around the globe. America has reaped tremendous benefits from foreign students, who often stay and enrich our nation or return to benefit their home countries. By taking this approach, the United States risks undermining its commitment to equality of educational opportunity.

Eventually, we hope that the United States can find the middle ground that will provide sufficient security while still allowing top students from other nations to come to the U.S. to study. Until then, the federal government should grant exceptions for exceptional cases like al-Dewachi’s.