tampabay.com

U.S. entry increasingly being denied

Since Sept. 11, foreign visitors are under increased scrutiny by Homeland Security.

By SHADI RAHIMI
Published April 21, 2006


 

A Zimbabwe woman who arrived in San Francisco traveling on a student visa was barred from entering the United States.

A Jordanian national with a valid passport and visa was denied entry in Chicago.

And four University of Florida students who had gone home to China for Christmas were barred from returning for months.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, foreign visitors who may once have easily entered the United States are facing increased scrutiny at land borders, airports and seaports. Every year, more than 300,000 noncitizens are denied entry for reasons ranging from improper or fraudulent travel documents to suspected terrorist ties.

Last week, Safana Jawad, an Iraqi-born Spanish citizen, said she was denied entry at Tampa International Airport because federal agents believed she was connected to someone they view as suspicious.

Her case isn't unusual.

About 500 noncitizens last year were denied entry because of terrorism or national security concerns, said Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.

"Ninety-nine percent of the traveling public is absolutely legitimate," she said. "However, we will not denigrate our antiterrorism mission in any way in order to achieve being a welcoming nation."

Klundt's agency was formed in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security to oversee all immigration, customs and agriculture border inspections and enforcement. The following year, its agents denied entry to more than 450,000 noncitizens.

The stricter border enforcement may be needed, but it also has led to an increase in fear among visitors to the United States, said Philip Hwang, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

"The danger is that there is a mind-set among some federal officers which allows immigrants to be seen as the enemy, and fails to recognize their value and contribution to this country," he said.

His San Francisco firm specializes in cases of abuse by federal immigration and border officials. Recently, Hwang represented Tsungai Tungwarara, a Zimbabwe woman who was denied entry at San Francisco International Airport in 2002.

Tungwarara was traveling on a valid student visa and federal agents suspected she planned to stay in the United States to attend school. Hwang said she already had enrolled at a school overseas.

Tungwarara was detained at the Oakland County jail and strip-searched. Last October, a federal district court ruled the strip search was unconstitutional. And last week, the U.S. government settled the lawsuit for $65,000, Hwang said.

The settlement was filed April 12 at the federal courthouse in San Francisco, the same day Jawad, 45, sat in a maximum-security cell of the Pinellas County jail.

She arrived at Tampa International Airport to visit her son, who lives in Clearwater with her ex-husband, Ahmad Maki Kubba, 49.

After being denied entry, Jawad was taken to the jail, booked as a felon and strip-searched.

"It's shocking because Jawad's case is strikingly similar to the one we just settled," Hwang said. "You'd think Homeland Security would get its act together. But it's a problem that's not going away."

Jawad is now visiting family members in London before returning home to Spain. Homeland Security has launched its own investigation of Jawad's treatment at the jail while in federal custody.

"I love America, but this was wrong," Kubba said. "She is innocent until proven guilty, but they dealt with her as a criminal."

Along with suspicions of terrorist ties, visitors may be denied entry for a variety of reasons, including lying about their planned visit and the possession of smuggled merchandise or fraudulent travel documents. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the increased scrutiny has netted some big fish, including a suicide bomber.

In 2003, Ra'ed Mansour al-Banna, a Jordanian national with a genuine passport and valid visa, was denied entry at Chicago O'Hare International Airport because he presented "terrorist risk factors" during questioning, Klundt said. She wouldn't elaborate.

Al-Banna, 30, was detained overnight and sent home. In 2005, he was identified as the suicide bomber who drove a vehicle loaded with explosives into a Shiite city that February, killing 132 Iraqis. Fingerprints from his severed hand, found chained to the steering wheel, were matched with those taken by federal agents at the airport.

"I'm not saying everyone we deny entry to is like al-Banna. But when we're denying people on terrorism grounds, there's reason for it," Klundt said. "Our primary mission is antiterrorism. But will we deny entry because of incorrect paperwork? Absolutely."

Several Florida university officials say the stricter enforcement since Sept. 11 has translated into a perception of the United States as an unwelcoming nation.

The view has led to a significant drop in applicants to the University of Florida, said Debra Anderson, the international student coordinator. The four Chinese students barred entry in 2004 were eventually allowed back after additional security checks.

The fear of not being able to return to school continues to worry students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"The students are very afraid to go home during their breaks because they are afraid of having problems coming back," said Lisa Kahn, director of International Affairs at USF. Problems may arise even before students or professors reach a U.S. port of entry.

In February, a prominent Indian scientist who was offered a visiting professorship at UF was denied a visa at a U.S. consulate in Madras, said Dennis Jett, dean of the International Center.

Goverdhan Mehta said he was accused of potential links to chemical weapons production. Mehta refused to come even after U.S. officials granted him a visa two weeks later.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court to lift a visa ban on another professor, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar who had accepted a position at Notre Dame.

His visa was revoked under a provision that allows the exclusion of foreigners who endorse terrorism, said Paul Silva, an ACLU spokesman. But Silva said Ramadan has publicly condemned terrorism, and is being barred because the Muslim scholar is a vocal critic of American policy in the Middle East.

Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, said Muslims like Jawad still often feel singled out by federal authorities, though reports of racial profiling at airports have dropped significantly since Sept. 11.

In 2004, of the 1,522 "anti-Muslim incidents" reported to the council, nearly 6 percent, or 88 incidents, occurred at airports, he said. The reported cases represent less than 20 percent of the total number nationwide, he said.

Bedier, however, believes most incidents go unreported because many people lack the sophistication of Jawad's family "It was beneficial that she was educated enough that she demanded to speak to lawyers and the Spanish embassy. Not everybody reacts in real time like that," Bedier said. "When you're in a state of shock, you're afraid, you're being interrogated, you can forget your rights."