Milad Aghajohari, a Stanford student denied boarding of a flight from Iran to the US on 9 September 2019 despite having a visa.

The Guardian: On 9 September, Milad Aghajohari and much of his extended family piled into cars and drove six hours from Isfahan to Tehran’s international airport. The 22-year-old was on his way to California, set to start a PhD program at Stanford University.

After wishing everyone goodbye, Aghajohari rolled his suitcases into the terminal. He handed his passport to a Turkish Airlines officer and placed his luggage on a scale. A moment later, a senior airline official pulled Aghajohari aside and showed him an email, which said it was “strictly advised” Aghajohari not board the flight. The initials of US Customs and Border Protection were written beneath the message. “In a few seconds,” Aghajohari said, “I went from being a Stanford student to being seen as a potentially dangerous person.”

Aghajohari was one of about 20 students from Iran who were barred from boarding flights to start graduate programs in the United States last month, the majority at campuses in the University of California system. The students were all traveling with valid F-1 student visas issued by the US state department. Most of them were turned away at airports in Iran, while a few were prevented from boarding connecting flights out of Doha and Istanbul. Their cases made headlines around the world.

Since then, the students have been trying to figure out what sparked the last-minute denials, and are reckoning with the financial and psychological toll of being suddenly barred from traveling.
A sudden denial

The Trump administration’s travel ban, which bars Iranians and nationals of six other countries from traveling to the US, does not apply to Iranian students, an exception that factored into the US supreme court’s decision to uphold the ban. In the 2017-18 academic year, more than 12,000 Iranians attended US colleges.

Before packing their bags for the US last month, the Iranian students had completed expensive and time-consuming university applications and visa processing. When they were turned away, they rushed to book embassy appointments to find out the reason for the sudden denial. There is no US embassy in Iran, so most of them traveled to Yerevan, Armenia, for appointments, some returning to Tehran by bus – a 24-hour journey – because they could only afford one-way plane tickets.

At the embassy, consular officers told the students their visas were revoked. Several students said the officers seemed puzzled by their cases. Most of the students applied for new visas on the spot, filling out the same forms and answering the same questions they had been asked several months earlier.

Eighteen students found each other online. The first thing they discovered was that, even though most of them were issued visas in June or July, their cases were all updated in the state department’s online tracking system between 27 and 31 August, a few days before the first student’s flight was scheduled. At the time, the students received no email or alert, and the visa statuses on the site remained “issued”. In hindsight, it seemed like more than a coincidence that their cases were updated – all at once – just before the airport denials began in early September.

While the state department says a visa does not guarantee entry to the US, immigration experts said what happened to the students is unusual. “You can’t issue F-1 visas and then just summarily cancel them without providing an explanation,” said Paris Etemadi Scott, an attorney at the Pars Equality Center in California.

What resembles an unwritten extension of the travel ban slammed the doors on students amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran. Lawyers and students wondered if the sudden denials were an act of political retaliation. “I can only speculate that the reason may have more to do with the deteriorating state of US-Iran relations than with anything in the students’ backgrounds,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell University.

Over the past month, universities and advocacy organizations have demanded explanations from the US government. At a meeting last week, state department officials at the US visa office in Washington DC told representatives of the American Immigration Lawyers Association they were “not aware of the situation at all”, according to the AILA government relations director, Sharvari Dalal-Dheini.

In the absence of an explanation, lawyers said the mass denials are a betrayal of regulations laid out in the travel ban. “They claim they are exempting students and then they revoke the visas,” said Dr Leila Golestaneh Austin, the executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. “It goes against what they promised.”

When Katie Porter, a California Democratic congresswoman, inquired with the US embassy in Yerevan and got an auto-response the students were all familiar with – “We do not have any information to share about your visa status” – they began to laugh in despair. “If they are going to answer to the congresswoman like that,” said Mohammadali, a student admitted to UC Irvine, “we know there will be no help for us.”

A spokesperson for the state department told the Guardian the department does not discuss the details of individual cases. “Visa applicants are continuously screened, both at the time of their application and afterwards,” the spokesperson said >>>