February Issue 2003
Education by Fire
Among citizens of other countries, most of them Muslim, all Pakistani males in the United States above the age of 16 are, courtesy a new law, now required to register with the American Imigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). The drill includes fingerprinting, oath-taking (I swear I am not a terrorist), and extensive interrogation.
The INS diktat is sweeping: it spares noone from the designated countries. Thus programmers, engineers and doctors alike are queuing up at INS offices closest to them. And while some have breezed through, there are enough horror stories — even just those culled from American newspapers — to indicate that for expats and visitors to the US, especially those of the Islamic variety, the honeymoon is over. And it’s not just those physically present in the States that are affected. Pakistani students aspiring to higher education have also become victims of the post September 11, post-INS registration world order.
Pakistani students applying to American universities have found their visa applications stalled; instead of taking the standard two to three weeks to be processed, a new policy requiring each and every application to be sent to Washington D.C. for background checks has meant that many students have had to wait up to six months for their student visas, and have consequently been forced to defer admission.
Take 24-year-old Yasir Khwaja’s case. A recent psychology graduate from George Washington University, Khwaja gained admission to Ivy-League Columbia University last fall for his Masters. While home in Pakistan over the summer, Khwaja applied for his visa almost immediately, in early June 2001. At last count, more than six months later, he still had not received his passport or visa. Having already missed his first semester of college, Yasir’s routine now consists of calling the US consular office on a daily basis. He says that the hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty.
After gaining admission in Oberlin College and receiving his 1-20, Rehan Jamil applied for a student visa in July to start school in September. Soon thereafter, his parents received a letter stating that visa regulations had changed, and that there was now a mandatory 30-day waiting period before the visa could be issued. Subsequently, they received another letter which stated this period was indefinitely extended. The letters were composed of the standard rhetoric — that regulations had changed, requiring each visa applicant to go through State Department checks etc. According to Rehan’s parents, while the waiting period was difficult, the college was most obliging, deferring Rehan’s admission till January. Thankfully Rehan received his visa in January, and has now joined college after having missed one semester.
There are endless others with similar stories. A large number of students, some of whom haven’t been home for a while, have cancelled long-planned visits back for fear that the new laws may affect their valid student status. In fact, colleges across the United States have gone so far as to issue advisory warnings asking students not to return home if home is not a European country.
Meanwhile, for some students who managed to make it to college in the US unhindered, there are other problems.
One Pakistani student, in his first year of college in upstate New York, went to Canada for a weekend. Driving back he was stopped in Buffalo and extensively grilled. Finally, he was allowed to proceed but told to register with the INS office in Buffalo every 30 days. He asked to be allowed to do this in the office closest to his college since a monthly trip to Buffalo would be extremely difficult to manage. However, the officials refused to comply with his request.
The growing unease among the Muslim community spawned by the registration requirement has sparked protests in cities all over America. In an interview on CNN, Bilal Zuberi, a 26 year old masters student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that there is nothing in his background that should make him fear US immigration authorities. Even so, he says that he has a gnawing anxiety about how the personal and academic information supplied by MIT to the INS will be used. Pursuing a doctorate in chemistry, Zuberi adds “there’s a lot of information that’s going to be used. People are literally afraid that if they don’t pay a five US-dollar fine, they could be deported.”
Such fears appear to be justified — last week alone, over 400 Muslim students were arrested after they failed to show up for registration. Of those who did go to register, seven students were arrested by the INS for failing to take enough academic courses during the semester. Students at Northeastern University spoke of a widespread feeling among Muslim students that they are being picked on — that the American government seemingly believes the lot of them are potential terrorists. Indeed, rummaging through news stories on the internet, one finds several with headlines such as, “500 protestors denounce rascist witch hunts,” in which people are drawing parallels between the current situation and Japanese internments during World War II. Word of mouth stories about ill-treatment meted out by inspectors, after those in the INS loop submitted themselves for registration, are spreading like wildfire across the international student grapevine.
Nor surprisingly then, many students have turned to European, Canadian, and Australian universities for further education. Zeyd Shaikh, for example, despite having his heart set on William and Hobart in upstate New York, eventually settled for Westminster College in London. Several hundred others have opted for Canadian universities. And Pakistanis are not the only ones. Many Arab students have also opted to either stay home or make alternate academic plans. Officials at American universities are understandably upset by this as international students contribute over 12 billion dollars to the US economy. Of the new visa policies one student dean at a school popular with foreign students remarked, “I don’t believe this is helping us with the war on terrorism. We’re alienating people who could be our best friends and ambassadors once they return to their countries.”
For Pakistan and its beleaguered citizens, the new US policies which, given the indicators, seem to particularly target them, are a real smack in the face. After capitulating to US demands to assist them in annihilating the Taliban, forcing a reversal of their strategic depth policy, Pakistan cannot believe that it is finding itself included with the likes of Iran and Iraq, countries which only recently, were deigned part of the “axis of evil” by US President, George Bush. A former Pakistani retired army colonel indignantly remarked that, “It is humiliating to see nationals of a front-line state being arrested, disgraced, detained and deported on unproven charges,” echoing the feelings of many Pakistanis both here and in the United States. Some particularly anxious Pakistanis with a dicey visa status are pre-emptively fleeing to the Canadian border in fear of being deported to the homeland. In an overwhelming majority of cases, these Pakistanis are in the US to build a better future for themselves and their children. It is a sad indictment of US policy that they are the ones who should have to suffer. The INS, for its part, has said that for those Pakistanis who are fully documented and legitimate, this new registration process is just a simple cautionary procedure, and so they should have nothing to fear. But with war against Iraq looming on the horizon, exacerbating already strained tensions with the Islamic world, most people spoken to believe that things are only going to get worse.
Human rights activists, social activists, eminent writers from Hitchens to Le Carre, European and Arab politicians, everyone, everywhere, it seems, except for Bush and co., have vociferously condemned America’s harsh and clearly counter-productive new policies. It is clear that America has completely exhausted any remaining sympathy it enjoyed since 9/11. And as the veil lifts, it becomes increasingly clear what America is fast becoming. As one once America-smitten Pakistani student in New York put it, “Beneath that toga, the lady on Ellis island carries an Uzi, and far from welcoming, “the tired and the poor,” she’s aiming it at them. All the while, Osama, wherever in the world he may be hiding, is surely rejoicing at this turn of events — he couldn’t have asked for more, not in his wildest dreams.”