South African fights denial of U.S. visa

Adam Habib, a scholar and Iraq war critic, was denied a visa to the US for 'links to terrorism.'

A South African scholar and critic of the war in Iraq is now fighting in US courts to clear his name, after being denied a visa for having "links to terrorism."

The US government has not directly declared Adam Habib, a respected social scientist and deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, a terrorist. But when Mr. Habib asked why he was denied entry at immigration at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport in October 2006, and denied a visa this past summer, the US Embassy in Pretoria handed him the statute under which his visa was denied.

The relevant statute, from the US Immigration and Nationality Act, allows the US to deny entry to a person who has either engaged in terrorist acts or who has signaled an intention to engage in a terrorist act.

"I think it's completely outrageous," says Dr. Habib, who has filed a court challenge in Boston with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "I asked [the US Embassy] specifically what exactly have I done to have you guys conclude that I'm a terrorist. [They said]: 'The State Department doesn't enter into that specificity of detail.' My attitude toward the US is not defined by what the present administration does. But it does bug me if I'm suddenly accused of something I haven't done."

Habib is just one foreigner of many who have faced either strenuous interrogation or expulsion by US immigration officials since 9/11. But his legal challenge shines a media spotlight on a visa process that has become more opaque in recent years, raising questions about the rights of individuals to free speech and to due process.

"This is a problem that is much bigger than just Professor Habib," says Melissa Goodman, an attorney with the ACLU who is handling Habib's case. "Since 9/11, writers, artists, and other have found it much more difficult to get into the US. What they have in common is that, like Professor Habib, they are vocal critics of US foreign policy."

The government points to recent legislation allowing it to make decisions in the national interest if there is a terrorist threat.

But since Habib was traveling to give a speech at an academic conference, the denial of his entry into the US deprives him of his right to speak and his audience's right to hear Habib. "It's different when First Amendment cases are heard. The law says that if a First Amendment right is involved, they [the government] have to provide evidence."

To date, the US Embassy in Tshwane (as Pretoria is now called officially) has refused to comment on the Habib case.

Although Habib's academic focus is mostly on domestic affairs, he has been a frequent critic of the US for its war in Iraq and its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

Habib says his treatment by the Homeland Security and immigration officials was polite and that there were no signs that he was singled out either for race, religion, or national origin. For this reason, the ACLU charges that Habib was denied entry because of his political views.

While no US official will comment on the Habib case, US officials have repeatedly defended the government's right to exclude foreigners whom it views to be a threat.

"I believe we are at war," said US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a May 2007 speech before the European Parliament in Brussels. He urged the European Union to extend the current Passenger Name Records law, under which US and EU officials are allowed access to passenger lists of airlines flying into their countries.

"We are collecting data because it has proven time and time again to keep dangerous people out of the country," said Mr. Chertoff. The US would never sacrifice civil liberties, but "life is the liberty on which all others depend," he says.

In the meantime, while the US government withdraws the 10-year visas for Habib's children and wife, academic institutions such as the American Sociological Society continue to send Habib invitations to speak in 2008. Habib says that he will continue to apply for visas, while his court case continues to seek a reversal of his previous rejections by US immigration officials.

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