A small room. A language barrier. An interrogation after hours of travel. Months spent preparing for a new life overseas, all gone in a blur.
A growing number of Iranian students share this collective memory. Many had secured admission to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. The State Department approved them for entry into the United States after a notoriously grueling, monthslong vetting process and issued them visas to come to the United States.
But when the students reached American airports, Customs and Border Protection officers disagreed and sent them home, some with a five-year ban on reapplying to return to the United States.
Most say they were not told why they were deemed “inadmissible” — a broad label that customs officers have wide discretion to apply. What the students do know is that, at a time of rising diplomatic tensions between the United States and Iran, their plans for the future seem to have evaporated.
Some of the students asked that their last names not be published. Their stories could not be verified with C.B.P. officials, who declined to comment on individual cases. In a statement, the agency said there were numerous potential grounds for inadmissibility, include health issues, criminality and security concerns. “In all cases, the applicant bears the burden of proof of admissibility,” the agency said.
‘They found it very funny’
Mohammad, 30, was studying at Northeastern University. He was turned away at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Oct. 6.
The officer was friendly, even cajoling at first. Mohammad felt confident. He had been studying at Northeastern University since April of 2019, and had crossed back and forth between Canada and the United States several times.
This particular trip was an academic one. A paper Mohammad had written during his coursework in numerical electromagnetics had been chosen for presentation at a conference in Paris. But when he arrived at Logan airport that day in October, the officer became aggressive, he said. He started yelling.
After Mohammad was told that his visa was going to be revoked, the officers took a picture of him, for their records. Then, he says, they laughed. “I looked as despondent in the photo as I felt and they found it very funny. I felt demeaned and humiliated,” he said.
Flight attendants on the trip back held onto his cellphone and travel documents and refused to give them to him until he reached Paris. When he arrived, he said, he sat in the airport crying for hours, unsure of what to do.
‘The moment I entered the cell, I lost my spirit’
Amin, 34, entering a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida, was turned away Jan. 1 at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.
Eight years after graduating at the top of his master’s class from the University of Tehran, Amin hoped to study for a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering in Florida. But at the airport, officers wanted to know why a former school email address and an old research paper he had written were not disclosed on his visa application.
When they told him he had been deemed inadmissible and would be returned to Iran, he collapsed onto a chair, crying.
A flight back to Iran was not available for a couple of days, so Amin said he was placed in a chilly holding cell for six hours, then transported in cuffs and chains to an immigration detention facility in Georgia. The officers there ordered him to strip naked in front of them.
“The moment I entered the cell, I lost my spirit,” he said. Now back in Iran, he has lost $6,000 — the equivalent of two years’ work — on his travel and applications. The company he worked for has filled his old position. Having moved out of his apartment in Tehran, he is bouncing from one relative’s home to another.