Border Patrols and Academic Freedom

As a non-resident alien academic working in the United States, the steady trickle of stories about the State Department and/or Department of Homeland Security denying foreign scholars entrance to the US has some added interest for me. Add to the stories of Tariq Ali and others the newest case, that of Greek political theorist John Milios, who was denied entrace to the States where he was headed to participate in a conference at SUNY Stony Brook (the conference, ironically, was on “How Class Works”). According to the report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Milios landed at JFK, was told his visa had been revoked–with no explanation of why it had been revoked, and no evidence offered–then interviewed for several hours before being put on a plane back to Greek. The report continues:

In the telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Milios said that after the attention given the expulsion in Greece, he was called to the U.S. Consulate for an hourlong discussion with a consular official. “It was a friendly talk,” he said, “but again it was mainly about my political affiliations.”

Milios has been a member of the Greek parliament, and is affiliated with the communist party in Greece (like a host of intellectuals around the world, it should be noted).

In addition to the general McCarthy-like feel of all this (if you haven’t seen Good Night and Good Luck, rent it tonight), one of the conference organizers rightly notes the serious academic consequences of this kind of ideological border patrol: isolation.

Michael Zweig, director of Stony Brook’s Center for Study of Working Class Life, said in a written statement that Mr. Milios’s absence “was a serious loss to the intellectual life of the conference and the university.”

“The action of U.S. officials on June 8,” he said, “isolated American faculty and students from important research results derived overseas and made it impossible for a senior international expert to interact with his colleagues in the United States.”

Interesting, in the latest issue of New Blackfriars, British Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr also laments the experience of trying to get into the United States. As he wryly notes:

“Having a visa, as it says on the document, is no guarantee that you will be allowed through passport control. That remains, as it says, entirely up to the individual US immigration man or woman at the desk whether to let you in. They seldom look you in the eye, they turn the pages of your passport suspiciously, and you need a ready answer if they snap out at you ‘What’s your business, sir, in the United States?’— 8 or 9 hours non stop in cattle class probably makes you look witless enough to have been on the wrong flight.

Take care, we are all paying a cost. Think twice about going at all.”

American academic colleagues have the luxury of being able to wear their anti-Americanism on their sleeves. Those of us who know what it’s like to deal with the INS tread more carefully.