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The Patriot Act: A Visitor’s Tale

From the editor in chief

This is the story of well, I can’t tell you his name, because, as he told me with a nervous laugh, “I’m still a scared man inside, Bob.”

Call him Ahmed. He is a citizen of Britain, where he completed his medical residency, but he was born in Pakistan. For the past several years, he has been a faculty member at a leading U.S. university medical center. His wife and children, also British citizens, live here with him.

With all the ingredients of an American success story in hand, why is Ahmed scared? The answer won’t surprise you: the USA Patriot Act and other regulations put into effect since Sept. 11, 2001. Few doubt that in the age of terror, greater efforts to monitor foreign visitors to the United States are warranted. However, many leaders worry that federal controls are proving so onerous that they will drive away the foreign talent vital to national competitiveness (see “Biotech’s Big Chill,” TR July/August 2003). I learned of Ahmed’s case at a recent party and thought his story might provide a good reality check on how well we are doing at maintaining this balance.

Ahmed arrived in the United States on a prestigious medical fellowship a few months before September 11. As a British citizen he wasn’t particularly worried about how the attacks would affect his family. But he quickly learned that from the U.S. perspective, there are the British, and then there are the other British.

The following summer, Ahmed’s wife and children vacationed in Britain. During the trip, their U.S. visas expired. Ahmed says it should have taken about 10 days to renew the visas at the American embassy in London. But his wife was told that new visas would not be issued unless Ahmed returned to Britain.

When Ahmed arrived in London, American embassy officials told him everything was in order but that his family’s visas would take another five weeks. “So I ended up stranded in London for five weeks, just for nothing,” he recalls.

Not long after the family made it back to the United States, all men within the country’s borders who were over the age of 16 and nationals-or in some cases just natives-of countries considered to pose an elevated national-security risk were ordered to register with the federal government under a special-registration program. “Being born in Pakistan, even though a British national, I was asked to go through this special-registration program,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed spent an entire day at an Immigration and Naturalization Service office being fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed. Now, although he is free to travel the United States, if he wants to leave the country, he must report to airport immigration authorities before departure for questioning about his itinerary, fingerprinting, and photographing. When he returns, he’ll be questioned, fingerprinted, and photographed again. Things like that scare him. Though he wants to visit Pakistan and see his parents more often, Ahmed says, “I’ve been holding myself back.” He has heard about others like him whose reentry to the United States was delayed by months, or denied outright. If and when Ahmed gets a green card, such restrictions should be lifted-but he’s nervous about that, too. “It remains to be seen whether I get a green card or not.”

Despite his experiences, Ahmed has no problem with the U.S. government monitoring newcomers. “I don’t think these rules by themselves are a bad thing,” he says. “It’s good to scrutinize people. But once they have scrutinized people who are cooperative, who abide by all the laws, whose records are clean, they should let them carry on with their lives. I’m being dealt with as if I’m a terrorist or a criminal, when I should concentrate on what I’m doing here.”

Ahmed agrees with those who think the United States is needlessly alienating people who want to come to this country to learn and to contribute. He knows several talented Pakistanis who dropped the idea of working here, and a Turkish colleague was recently told to leave the country without explanation, even though he had been in the U.S. for six years and is a leader in his field.

For a wider perspective, I talked to Ahmed’s supervisor. “It’s pretty wild,” he says. “Huge amounts of paperwork and delays. I’ve been through it with a couple of guys.” It’s usually the cream of the foreign crop who are accepted into U.S. fellowship programs, he says, so it’s particularly difficult to see such talent get such a hard time.

Like Ahmed, I support increased monitoring of certain foreign nationals. I’m not even particularly troubled that we seem to have overdone it on the first pass: that’s a natural reaction for a nation that lost thousands of citizens, friends, and relatives in a single morning. But it’s time to refine the program and make it both smarter and more fair. We owe it to our guests, and to ourselves, to do better.

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