A computer scientist in Iran received her student visa clearing her to study at the University of Georgia in January. On Feb. 7, she was issued her F-1 student visa and flew to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport four days later.
The woman spent the next night detained by the airport’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection port-of-entry officers and was denied entry into the U.S.
Editor’s note: The student was granted anonymity from The Red & Black to protect her from retaliation from CBP and her chances of re-submitting a student visa application.
Although the outbreak of COVD-19 was not directly related to the woman’s case, in late February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 3 travel warning to Iran, stating “CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel.” As of March 12, the World Health Organization reported 9,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country.
The woman said she arrived at the airport with a valid student visa and said she had $10,000 cash with her to cover part of her UGA tuition. She also obtained a separate I-20 form, a financial form required in the student visa approval process, which stated she had an additional $50,000 from “family funding.”
For one academic year in a graduate program at UGA, the cost of tuition plus fees is $26,502 for non-Georgia residents who live off-campus.
Despite this, a CBP inspection determined the woman had “insufficient funds to pay for the cost of her schooling.”
“During the inspection, [the woman] admitted that she did not have the financial means to support her enrollment at the university or for her stay while in the U.S.,” a CBP spokesperson said in an email to The Red & Black.
The spokesperson said the woman could not “overcome the grounds of inadmissibility” under Title 8, Section 212(a)(7)(A)(i)(I) of the United States Code.
The section of the code lists the “classes of aliens ineligible for visas or admission.” The section the woman was charged with says any immigrant without a valid passport, visa and entry documents is inadmissible.
CBP said they “permitted” the woman to withdraw her application for admission into the U.S. — the withdrawal of a student visa is not a deportation or expedited removal.
An expedited removal could result in a 5-year ban from the U.S., while in the case of a withdrawal, the person may reapply to enter the U.S. in the future, according to a 2011 CBP directive.
The woman provided The Red & Black with copies of the withdrawal of application for admission document. The signed document stated the student did not have the funds to cover the cost of her schooling and as a result, “could not overcome the presumption that she was an intending immigrant likely to add to the immigrant population.”
Although the CBP spokesperson claimed the student admitted she could not afford to live in Athens, the woman said otherwise. She said she never admitted to this and said an officer told her: “If you want to leave this room you must sign this paper.”
She said after hours in a cell, when the officers said signing the papers was her only way out, she felt forced to sign the withdrawal application. One of the woman’s lawyers, Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, which focuses on advocacy work in immigrants’ rights and Muslim communities, said she believes the woman’s statement. Shahshahani said CBP “has had a long documented history of abuses and lying.”
“I always knew the USA as a country having progressive laws protecting human rights. I thought I was going to have a hassle-free time to focus on my studies and improve,” the woman said.
On Feb. 11, while being questioned by CBP officers, the woman said her personal items and phone were taken and was not permitted a phone call for the first few hours, she said. When she asked an officer whether she could have a lawyer or translator present during the questioning, she said they told her, “It is 3 a.m. and no translators or lawyers are available.”
The woman speaks and understands English, but when asked legal questions, she preferred to be asked in Farsi.
“I couldn’t sleep at all, they called and asked me questions throughout the night,” the student said. “And the cells were cold.”
Shahshahani has worked on similar cases and said it is common for international students to be denied lawyers by CBP. Still, she encourages students to request an attorney to “cut down on the abuses and inappropriate questioning.”
During the questioning, the student said officers looked through her photos, emails and messages and asked her why she wore her hijab in certain photos and not in others. They questioned her about her marriage, friends and if she had any problems with her country.
“[The cells are] barren with little or no furniture. Sometimes [detainees] have not been given food for hours,” Shahshahani said.
Hours later, the woman said officers told her, “If you want to leave this cell, board the next flight to your country.”
The next morning, she returned to Istanbul — her F-1 student visa was issued at the U.S. embassy in Turkey.
Shahshahani said one of her clients with a valid student visa was turned away at the Atlanta airport and placed in a holding cell for more than six hours. He was later handcuffed, chained and transported to the Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility in Georgia and ordered to strip naked by officers, The New York Times reported.
After speaking to other Muslim immigrants in the detention center, Shahshahani said they have struggled to practice their faith, were denied halal foods and prohibited from praying together. She said grievances from detained immigrants are ignored and immigrants continue to be mistreated by officers.
Similar instances with CBP have been reported nationally — a Jan. 23 article from CBC News cited an email from a U.S. border officer which said “multiple Canada-U.S. border crossings were instructed to target and interrogate Iranian-born travellers in early January.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated on Jan. 2 when President Donald Trump ordered the assisination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to enact revenge for Soleimani’s death as crowds mourned his death in Iran.
On Jan. 31, in a statement by the White House press secretary, President Trump issued entry restrictions on “certain nationals” from Iran and other countries. The statement said Trump’s travel proclamations have “immeasurably improved” national security.
Aware of the challenges that lie ahead, the student, now back in Iran, still holds on to the hope of returning to the U.S. She said she plans to reapply to UGA for the fall 2020 semester and resubmit her student visa application promptly thereafter.
“I am sure I will enter the U.S. this time with no problem with support because I believe there was no problem with my visa or situation,” the woman said.