BY TREVOR GARDNER
The sprawling American anti-terrorism campaign finally reached Harvard Law School when 3L Ahmed el-Gaili was prevented from returning to the United States to finish law school.
After accepting a summer position with Sullivan and Cromwell, el-Gaili decided he would spend the first half of his summer in New York and the second half in London. As a citizen of Sudan, El-Gaili is only eligible for F-1 visas, which require renewal each time the holder leaves the United States. In the past, el-Gaili’s visa had been renewed only a few days after he applied. Recognizing that the summer trip to London would be his first time outside the country since September 11, el-Gaili took extra precautions.
He first took an informal poll of a half-dozen friends with a similarly situated visa profile who had recently passed through the visa renewal process. Most of their visas were renewed within two to three weeks with the longest time elapsed between application and renewal being four weeks. El-Gaili then contacted a visa processing agency in London that he had used many times. The agency offered him estimates that confirmed his friends’ accounts. To be absolutely certain of his timely return, El-Gaili regularly checked the State Department website before his departure, looking for announcements on changes in visa policy. When he left for New York on July 21, a visa policy change had not been posted.
Unfortunately, all of his precautions still weren’t enough.
On July 23 – over a full month before he would need to return to HLS – el-Gaili submitted his visa renewal application to the United States embassy in London, six full weeks before the start of the fall semester. Four weeks later, he received his passport in the mail without a visa. The passport was accompanied by a letter requesting that el-Gaili appear at the agency for an in-person interview on August 29.
“The interview was very friendly and smooth, but I was told that new regulations required that my visa application be sent to D.C. for ‘clearance,'” said El-Gaili.
An official at the agency informed El-Gaili that the process could take an additional six weeks. The beginning of the fall semester was only days away. El-Gaili then worked with Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson to reset his registration deadline.
“The response of the Law school, and namely that of Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson, has been extremely supportive, responsive, and accommodating. I got permission to register as late as September 30,” el-Gaili said.
In early September, it became apparent that El-Gaili could not beat the deadline. He then began hunting for schools in London that would allow him to enroll with only a few weeks notice. Two professors, one from the Kennedy School of Government and William Alford from the Law School, submitted letters of recommendation on el-Gaili’s behalf on short notice. El-Gaili was eventually accepted into the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he is now enrolled as a full-time student.
The State Department has refused to give specific details regarding its new visa policy. Twenty-six countries are said to be subject to the closer scrutiny, and most of them contain relatively large Arab or Muslim populations.
The Harvard Crimson quoted the agency’s spokesman, Stuart Patt, as saying that a significant backlog has prevented new visa applications from receiving immediate attention.
“Someone could very easily use student status as a means to enter the United States when they have other intentions,” he said. “National security is our number one issue.”
Of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks, one entered the U.S. on a student visa, fifteen entered through tourist visas, and three through business visas.
Reports indicate that students around the world are reconsidering higher education in the United States. International students are beginning to view Australia, England and Canada as more welcoming to foreigners, and thus, better places for international study.
El-Gaili said he believes that the new U.S. visa policy would do little to minimize the threat of terrorism.
“No terrorist will be deterred by this process. The only people deterred are the bright minds that are seeking refuge in this country’s freedom but they will no longer find it. They will simply take their talent and contribute it to more welcoming societies.”
El-Gaili told The Harvard Crimson that although he had planned to work at Sullivan and Cromwell in New York, he is now strongly considering their London office.
“It’s definitely not the same U.S. I came to nine years ago – not the same open, welcoming society, at least to people from my part of the world,” El-Gaili said.
“I am not in class at Harvard today because I am Arab. Secondly, the measures are being applied in such an indiscriminate manner which, far from being just, equates between someone studying at Taliban school and someone studying at Harvard Law School,” he added.
[After this article was published El-Gaili informed The RECORD that on October 21st he received notice that his visa would finally be approved. He hopes to rejoin his class at the Law School in January. Eds.]