Update: a few days after going public with this story, which especially received a lot of attention on Twitter and Google+, I received an email saying that my visa waiver was approved. It came one month after I’d initially applied, and too late to attend the United Nations conference.
Given the Trump Administration’s Executive Order that aims to revoke visas to nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, what is your professional society doing to further support conference travel to the USA?
This is my story as a non-Muslim Australian. I’m sharing it as a minor example of the confusion and possible ramifications of the “Muslim ban” on academics. The broader context is much more perilous for Muslims who have a concrete fear for their lives and future under President Trump. As my blog has a strong focus on enhancing social justice in academic and applied research settings, and sociological responses to social change, these are the dual topics of this post. The bigger picture beyond considerations for academic travel is more insidious.
I was invited to speak at a conference in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The event, Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media – From Vision to Action, was held on February 10th, 2017 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, USA. Gender equity in science and academia is a field in which I’ve long worked, researched and volunteered, including in a previous role where I implemented and managed a national program to increase gender equity and diversity in science. I was invited to discuss my public writing on women in science. I was excited.
In preparation for this travel, I applied for the visa waiver program in January, as is my right as an Australian citizen. This program should provide automatic approval for people holding an electronic Australian passport. That’s me. I received an automatic message when I applied that I was not auto approved but that I’d hear an outcome within 72 hours, as is the maximum waiting period for this service. The time came and went and there was no response. I have not been denied a visa, I have simply not been granted one and not given a reason.
Then the Muslim ban was in full effect. Let me provide the background and how scientists have responded, before I tell you more on what happened to me, and what research organisations may need to consider in terms of academic conferences.
The Muslim Ban
Whilst campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump had promised various policy changes pandering to xenophobia, including a “Muslim register” as well as travel restrictions under the guise of national security. By the 27 January 2017, just one week after taking office, President Trump delivered on his much-publicised promise to target Muslim Americans. He signed his Executive Order to place a 90-day block on nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Massive deportations occurred immediately and “the Muslim ban” created massive chaos. Sixty thousand visas were revoked immediately that weekend. It cannot be underestimated the massive impact on Muslims and their families who were kept from entering the USA, some of whom were locked in detention facilities. At least one woman died after being denied entry back into the USA.
Social protests followed immediately, along with demonstrable action by lawyers volunteering on the ground to bring back those who were stranded overseas and deported. A groundbreaking lawsuit against President Trump was set in motion.
Academics were among those affected, including data scientist Nazanin Zinouri. Millions of academics around the world had already joined related protests against Trump. Beyond, many academics took a public stance against the Muslim ban’s impact on academic science. They shared the personal and political impact on their professional careers. This especially affects scientists born in Iran. Esteemed colleagues spoke out about the moral duty of scientists to take action against the USA Government. To date, over 42,000 American academics have signed the petition against the immigration restriction, including 30,000 faculty in the USA, 62 Nobel Laureates, 105 prestigious Prize awardees, and 813 Members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Arts. Over 150 American scientific organisations have signed an open letter to Trump opposing his Executive Order. Scientists offered desk space, accommodation and support to other researchers via the Science Solidarity List. The Muslim ban is one of many reasons why scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, including me, continue to advocate that the global March for Science should take a stronger stance on diversity issues.
A stay on the ban has been in effect since 28 January, implemented by U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly. The stay was sustained by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals until Judge Donnelly can fully investigate the case. Subsequently President Trump has infamously rallied against the judicial system. His sustained investment in circumventing established democratic processes leaves Muslims in a precarious position, not only in the USA, but in other nations, including Australia.
Islamophobia has been ongoing in Australia for many decades. The Muslim ban is an extension of long-held prejudices that impact the daily lives of Muslim-Australians, the USA, and elsewhere. Our own policies are no better. Mandatory offshore detention of refugees exclusively targets Muslims and has been our official national policy since 2001. We are set to enforce a permanent ban on boat arrivals unless we do something about it. Still, Australians are invested in protesting the Muslim ban, with both Australian-Muslim organisations and a public petition issuing pleas to our leaders to formally oppose President Trump’s ban.
Amidst all this, my visa application was in limbo. This is small potatoes in the broader context, but I share my story because, potentially, this illustrates how systemic issues may be affecting visa processing. What can professional associations do to intervene or make this process easier?
Given the United Nations conference was imminent, I followed up to see why my visa application was delayed. I first enquired electronically. I received a message saying it would be at least three months before I’d hear back. Then I called the the USA visa office in Australia. I couldn’t see the issue as I’ve travelled to other countries in Europe, Asia and New Zealand. I was told to contact the USA Homeland Security and given a USA phone number.
No thank you.
I was born in South America. I have lived in Australia since I was a young child. I am not a dual national. There are no Latin nations on the unlawful Muslim ban list, nor have I travelled to these nations; I’ve simply have never had the opportunity. Not that it should matter, given the positive contributions Muslims have made to Australia, America and the rest of the world. I am not Muslim—again, this should be inconsequential as it is not a crime to be Muslim. The United Nations sees religious freedom as a basic human right. Moreover, Australians (that is, dual nationals) are supposed to be exempt from the ban.
Regardless the stay means the ban should not be enforced. That did not stop a young Australian-Iranian boy from being denied entry to the USA to attend space camp in the early confusion of the ban. It also hasn’t stopped a Canada-born Muslim youth being turned away at the border just yesterday under unclear circumstances. He was travelling with his teammates for a university sports tournament.
As academic friends have pointed out, President Trump has disbanded key roles that may be affecting how administrative offices are being managed and resourced, perhaps including those overseeing visa processing. In answer to a friend’s question: yes first name is a common Muslim name. I was named for a character in a book. My first name is unusual in both the country where I was born, where I was raised, and yes, the USA. Then again, my second name reflects my family’s Spanish-speaking origins. It should go without saying by names shouldn’t be cause for suspicion.
What other factors may have affected the visa delay? The Trump government is currently conducting an unprecedented campaign to deport undocumented migrants that goes beyond the Obama Administration’s callous tactics. This especially targets Americans of Latin American origin. The Trump Administration continues to promise the building of a new wall between the USA and Mexico. Are Latins suspect short-term visa applicants too?
Let’s consider human error. Did I fill in the form wrong? While anything is possible, it is not probable given I provided all the required information and payment for my visa waiver application. Before Trump came into power, other members of my family have passed through the USA with visas that were approved smoothly. Then again, they aren’t named Zuleyka.
Whatever the reason—my birthplace, my name, my perceived religion, or something else — the very fact that I hold an Australian electronic passport should have led to a swift answer, even if that was a declined application.
My name, along with the colour of my skin, have been a source of discrimination my entire life. My citizenship is something that I value highly because I’m not seen as Australian, despite my contributions to Australian society. Anti-racism, along with gender and other forms of equality, are my life’s work. Though this situation raises pain for me, and has cost me a professional opportunity, it is still nothing compared to what Muslims are going through.
Many others are suffering due to the ban as they are being actively persecuted for their religion and nationality. So if the waiver program causes an unclear and long delay for a one-day conference to me, a mid-career PhD-holding Latin-Australian sociologist, how might it affect other scholars?
What are sociological associations doing?
The event I was to speak at is not related to a sociological association. It is organised by a not-for-profit that did not charge registration fees, but the organisers also told me they had no resources to finance or support my travel. Having worked at not-for-profits, I commiserate. Their invitation also came (just) before the immigration ban. I may have gotten caught up in the immediate confusion. The Muslim ban is, however, presenting sustained challenges that are not going away. Organisations must be proactive.
Academic conferences are one of the primary activities of professional organisations. I have previously discussed the importance of academic conferences to early career researchers, having been the recipient of travel scholarships by The Australian Sociological Association as a PhD student. This is where I learned to network. Those early conferences put me in contact with people who would eventually go on to examine my thesis, to act as my referees for jobs, and one of my conference presentations directly led to one of my lecturing positions. Conferences matter.
I am disappointed to miss out on the current opportunity. As an applied researcher who self-funds everything and whose usual professional tempo does not lend itself to many conferences in my field, this invite was special. Still, I can weather on. What about other sociologists and scientists in other fields to whom conferences are essential to career development and advancement?
Educators have an ethical imperative to take visible action on the Muslim ban, which creates additional stress and hostility especially for students. What is happening in my discipline to prevent visa hold ups for researchers?
I hope that The Australian Sociological Association, an organisation that has been so progressive on social justice issues in Australia, may publicise its stance and consider forms of visa support to scholars who may be potentially affected by the ban. While they cater to a national membership first and foremost, we belong to an international tradition, and our Muslim colleagues here and overseas could use the support.
The President of the International Sociological Association (ISA), Professor Margaret Abraham, has issued a strong statement against Trump’s Executive Order, calling sociologists to lead research and legal efforts against the ban.
There is a critical need for us individually, as sociologists, and collectively, as an association, to listen and understand the voice and actions of multiple publics across the world; not to dismiss but to discuss, to actively engage in dialogue and debate; to examine and address the issues of inequality and injustices that are at the root of the ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and extreme right-wing thinking on the rise. We need to reflect, respond and recognise our responsibility as sociologists to address what is happening on the ground in these grim times and strive to address injustices. I am writing this at the outset because, despite the multiple challenges we currently confront, I continue to believe in reason and I’m confident that sociologists can play a key role in the formidable task of reviving hope and crafting a better future in an inclusive and just world.
The ISA President’s statement includes no specific plans to address the travel ban. I hope that more will follow this unequivocal call to arms for sociologists around the world.
The American Sociological Association has taken a number of important steps to support their members and have asked for further suggestions. They do not discuss visas but their other practical steps are a useful start. The ASA writes:
As sociologists, we oppose this Executive Order because it affects our colleagues and students as well as the conditions for knowledge production. In addition, sociologists have documented and analysed the ways in which symbolic boundaries are made more rigid and result in the social exclusion of specific groups. This Executive Order targeting specific groups of individuals has effects not only on its immediate victims, but also on how our society understands itself and its orientation toward diversity and human rights…
We are also working with several coalitions of scientific and humanistic disciplinary societies to defend the fundamental principles of academic scholarship and the use of empirical evidence in support of public policy. This is especially important at a time when “alternative facts” are offered as “evidence” in regard to challenges to scientific consensus on climate change and other policy issues. We are working with these coalitions to develop immediate and long-term strategies to address issues such as access to data essential to the study of racial discrimination and other forms of inequality and exclusion.
Here are the steps the ASA has taken so far, as outlined in their statement:
- The ASA is taking “a firm stance” against last week’s Executive Order. They have co-signed the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- The ASA is actively monitoring the upcoming ASA Annual Meeting in Montreal and looking for ways to address issues.
- The ASA asks sociologists to report to them threats to academic freedom and expertise and to the professional lives of sociologists. Contact ASA Executive Director Nancy Kidd, email@example.com.
- The ASA asks experts “in particular areas that are threatened by current and future public policy decisions” to contact them, to better coordinate responses.
- The ASA asks its members: “please be prepared to respond to calls for action.” For example:
This is a good model to build on. The visa issue still needs proactive advocacy and tangible support for researchers as it is a legal barrier that is highly taxing and difficult to navigate.
There have been some social media conversations across disciplines after I shared my story on Twitter. Colleagues from other fields are asking their organisations what is being done. So far, while there is concern, we’ve yet to see a specific response on practical visa support.
I’ll now return to my original question: what are professional societies doing to help researchers gain visas for conferences under the current regime?
Follow media updates on the Muslim ban.
All images by Zuleyka Zevallos.
- Header: among a group of protesters at the Women’s March Sydney, a woman holds the sign that reads: Trump Uphold Human Rights for All.
- A woman holds up sign with the Australian flag visible in the background. Message reads: No hate no fear, everyone is welcome here.
- In a crowd of standing protesters facing front, a woman holds sign low behind her back. It reads: People have the power to redeem the work of fools.
- Two open palms are painted like a world atlas, with the ISA quote as above: “We need to reflect… an inclusive and just world.” Quote: International Sociological Association. Image: Sociology at Work.
- Women protesters are walking through Sydney CBD. One of the sign reads: Without community there is no liberation.