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Iranians at Stanford face hurdles: Students confront Visa delays, visits from FBI

05/29/08 By Devin Banerjee, Stanford Daily

The following is the first of two reports on Iranian students and scientists at Stanford. Part two will run in Wednesday's issue of The Stanford Daily (reprinted with permission)


Stanford Campus
Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Mahdiyar Noorbala's acceptance letter to Stanford's highly competitive physics doctoral program was only the first step in an arduous journey from Iran to California. After a multitude of embassy visits, visa interviews and background checks, the Iranian citizen arrived at Stanford in 2006 - almost a year after he was originally set to begin his graduate studies.

Noorbala's is one of many cases in which a U.S.-bound Iranian student has been delayed by ramped-up security measures put in place following the attacks on  September 11, 2001, and President Bush's declaration that Iran is a member of an " axis of evil."

Stanford students, professors and administrators say visa delays have hindered the academic pursuits of Iranian students at the University. Students have also reported visits from the  FBI in which agents supposedly verified immigration statuses. According to Hoover Fellow  Abbas Milani, these circumstances have created a climate of fear and intimidation among Stanford's Iranian population.

The Visa Process and Its Effects

Security-threat safeguards consisting of name-based and biometric checks are the same for prospective students and scholars as for all other visa applicants, according to a Feb. 7, 2008 Congressional testimony by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Service  Stephen Edson.

Each applicant's fingerprints are checked against the interagency database of qualified travelers, suspected terrorists, international criminals and immigration violators, and then screened through the FBI's criminal database.

Applicant photos are screened against a facial recognition database of suspected terrorists and visa violators, and each applicant's name and biodata are checked against a name-based database of over 32 million interagency entries, according to Edson. For certain travelers, including "students and scholars with expertise in fields of [nuclear] non-proliferation concern," an interagency analysis of their application data - known as a Visas Mantis clearance - is required.

This process can be particularly long for students from Iran, one reason being the lack of a U.S. embassy in their home country since the 1979  Iranian Revolution. Students and scholars wishing to travel to the U.S. must first travel to a neighboring country to begin the visa application process.

"You have to go twice for an interview, and, if you're lucky, you go a second time to pick the visa up," said Amin Firoozshahian, an Iranian doctoral student in Electrical Engineering. "Every time, it's just expensive. Every time, you go through this burden of going to consulates, going to a third country, reservations of flights, hotels, visas. It's a project. It's a full-time project."

Firoozshahian, whose first visa application was rejected in 2001 in Turkey, later traveled to Dubai to reapply. Noorbala's first attempt in 2005 was also denied, allegedly because he did not show enough intent to return to his home country following his stated length of stay - known as non-immigrant intent.

"They told me, 'You don't have enough social ties to your home country,' or something like that," Noorbala said.

John Pearson, director of the Bechtel International Center, said Stanford steps in to assist when a University-bound student is denied a visa request.

"In these cases, we have been able to request a consideration," Pearson said in an email to The Daily. "The denial is usually based on insufficient evidence that the student intends to return to their home country after they have finished their studies. Bechtel works with departments and consulates to ask for reconsiderations of the visa denial."

But students who have undergone the process say Stanford can only do so much to help.

"The University helps you, provides you with paperwork," Firoozshahian said. "Maybe sometimes they send faxes to the consulate or provide you with letters to the consulate. But this is all the University can do. In the end, it is the sole discretion of the consulate officer to decide if you're going or you're not going."

Iranian students also emphasized the hardships that visa rejections and delays impose on families. Because the vast majority of Iranian students are only granted single-entry visas, many do not go home for fear that reapplying for a U.S. visa will result in delay or denial.

"I've had friends who haven't seen their families for six to seven years because they couldn't afford the travel or the delays," Firoozshahian said. "My parents were trying to come to my [June] graduation, and they got turned down. [The consulate] said that only one of them could come. It was kind of tough - how could I make that decision?"

Under "Watchful Eyes"

Abbas Milani - director of Stanford's Iranian Studies Program, fellow at the  Hoover Institution and Iranian exile since 1986 - said he believes Iranian students are not only scrutinized more when applying for visas, but are also "watched more" once in the U.S.

"I think they are under considerably more watchful eyes," said Milani, who spent a year in an Iranian prison in 1977 for his Marxist teachings. "The FBI keeps a much closer tab on them."

One Iranian student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared drawing attention from the government, said that while the FBI usually contacts students by phone first, one agent simply showed up at his door.

"He just knocked at the door and said, 'I'm from the FBI. Let's make an appointment,'" the student told The Daily. "Our conversation was long - like one hour. He asked me about my family in Iran and about my research here."

This student said he was expecting the visit because many of his friends had received similar ones.

Firoozshahian, who received an FBI visit two to three years ago, said the agents who visited him in his department office claimed to be helping the  Immigration and Naturalization Service by verifying student visa statuses.

"According to what they said, a couple of the attackers of 9/11 were on student visas, and they wanted to make sure that the students here were maintaining their legal status," Firoozshahian said.

"They were very nice," he added. "It wasn't anything bad."

The Daily left repeated messages for the FBI's San Francisco division inquiring about the agency's stated purpose for visits to campus, but the messages were not returned.

Milani said the pre-9/11 U.S. was "the most lax country for those who overstayed their visas," but he believes current FBI visits represent "over-vigilance" on the part of the post-9/11 government.

"The pendulum has to swing back to the middle where the immigration office knows who is here on visa status and when their visa status has lapsed," he said. "Making them feel like these interviews are a form of checking up on them or frightening them is, I think, counter-productive. It leaves a bad taste."

Milani underscored the importance of relaxing visa processes, highlighting the negative consequences of continued U.S. policy.

"I understand the security aspect of it," he said, "although sooner or later, if American universities and European universities are closed to Iranian students wanting to study physics or chemistry, they'll go to India, they'll go to China, they'll go to Russia or Japan."

Milani also called American-educated Iranians "Trojan horses of democracy" because they experience democracy and return to Iran with its values.

"The path [from America to Iran] allows them to become willy-nilly agents of change," he said. "To close that path is so short-sided that it's hard to imagine any other cause than sheer ignorance or malice. I tend to think it's more ignorance than malice."

- Ryan Mac contributed to this report.

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