Walling Off the Ivory Tower

Kerem Schamberger
Loren Balhorn

The United States is home to some of the world’s leading universities, research institutes, and academic conferences. But non-US researchers are increasingly excluded from the centers of scholarly exchange — all because they can’t get a visa.

A multi-disciplinary academic conference during World Investment Forum 2018. (Violaine Martin / flickr)

Last May, I was supposed to give a presentation on the role of popular media in Kurdistan at a gathering of the International Communication Association, or ICA. I’d been researching the topic for years and was excited to share my findings with a large international academic audience — but alas, I never got the chance. After a torturous, almost surreal vetting process that left me wondering whether I was really applying for a visa to a country that describes itself as “the land of the free,” US immigration authorities denied my visa and refused to let me enter the country at all.

The country I call home, the Federal Republic of Germany, welcomes American tourists for ninety days visa-free, no questions asked. Americans are encouraged to visit, travel, and experience the culture; if they really like it here, they can apply for a language school visa and extend their stay for another year or two. By the time that runs out, they can usually acquire a work visa without leaving the country or undergoing much scrutiny. I had heard that the United States was a bit stricter, but, given my German passport, I hoped that a brief trip to the country to speak at an established international conference wouldn’t be a problem.

Strike One

The scene is early March 2019, and the sixty-ninth annual ICA conference is three months away. Just to be safe, I apply online for my ESTA — the travel permit the US government only grants to citizens of certain allied, “First World” nations — far in advance. As I fill out the questionnaire, the Americans want to know what countries I’ve visited in the last few years. In my case, that list includes Iraq, Iran, and Syria, because the topic of my dissertation — the Kurdish media landscape — requires that I visit the region and speak with local protagonists.

To be honest, I was pretty sure from the outset that my application wouldn’t go through. After all, not only had I recently visited several countries that once belonged to George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” but the NSA was almost certainly aware of my political activism as a member of the Communist Party and a relatively well-known figure on the German left. One day later — surprise, surprise — I got the message: application denied. If I wanted to come to America, I would have to undergo an interview at the US consulate in Munich.

The United States is one of the most important countries for science, research, and teaching. Publishing in English is essential to any academic career, and nearly one third of the world’s top five hundred universities are located within its borders. Despite this dominance, the country is completely out of reach for millions of academics from the Global South whose passports make them persona non grata for its border regime. I am lucky enough to have a German passport, and thus I enjoy a certain privilege. As the communist poet Bertolt Brecht once said, “the passport is the most noble part of a person.” As frustrating as my experience was, what happened to me trying to make it to America is what millions of people from the “Third World” go through every day.

People with German or American passports are able to visit 167 countries across the world without applying for a visa beforehand. This makes them the second-best passports behind the United Arab Emirates, which has access to 172. An Afghani passport, on the other hand, will only get you into thirty countries without a visa — and 168 will turn you away at the border. Global class society is reflected in US State Department rejection rates for so-called “B-visas” for private and business purposes from certain countries. The countries at the top of the list in 2018 will probably come as little surprise: leading the pack is Somalia, with a 90.2 percent rejection rate, followed by Iran (87.66 percent) and Syria (77.3 percent).

Not a single visa application from North Korea was accepted in 2018, although there probably weren’t any formal requests to begin with. By comparison, only 7.96 percent of visa applications from South Korea were turned down. It pays to be an American ally, it seems — at least in this regard.

Keep in mind that the kinds of people applying for an American visa from these countries are overwhelmingly members of the middle and upper classes to begin with. The world’s poor, on the other hand, are excluded from the outset. Universities in these countries rarely have the kinds of budgets needed to send their researchers to conferences abroad. Germans, by the way, were only rejected for American visas 7.4 percent of the time.

Strike Two

Still determined to attend the conference, I scheduled an appointment at the American consulate in Munich. I knew the building from my school days, when I protested the Iraq War back in 2003. After filling out pages and pages of online forms and paying 144 euro, by mid-March I found myself sitting in the consulate waiting room surrounded by would-be immigrants from all over the world hoping to try their luck in the land of opportunity across the Atlantic.

When my number was called, I was greeted by a friendly woman. We had a nice chat about the countries I’d visited recently, what I did there, and what plans I had for my visit to the United States. Ten minutes later, I was told, “Congratulations, you’ve got a visa for the next ten years. We’ll hold on to your passport and send it back to you with your new visa.”

I was a little dumbfounded. Had the Americans really just given me, a communist and a critical scholar, permission to enter their country that easily? Something didn’t feel right. A few hours later, I got an e-mail: “It has been determined that your visa application requires additional administrative processing. Therefore we are refusing your visa application under Section 221(g) of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).”

Strike Three — I’m Out

No visa after all. Instead, I was asked to fill out yet another form with even more questions, even more prying than the last ones. At this point, I felt like they were really peering into my soul. Among many others, some of the questions I was expected to answer included:

  • Have you travelled to any country, including all EU countries, (other than your country of residence) in the last 15 years? If yes, provide details for each trip, including locations visited, date visited, source of funds, and length of stay.
  • Provide the full name(s) of any current or previous spouse or civil/domestic partner, living or deceased. Surname(s) (including all aliases, maiden name, etc.)/Given Name(s)/Date of Birth
  • Provide all addresses where you have lived during the last 15 years, if not already provided in your application — please include exact street address and dates of residence.
  • Provide all email addresses you have used in the last five years, including primary, secondary, work, personal and educational addresses
  • Please provide your unique user name for any websites or applications you have used to create or share content (photos, videos, status updates, etc.) as part of a public profile within the last five years.
  • Provide the following information on all employers in the last fifteen years, if not already provided in your application: Employer’s name, dates of employment, street address, city, state/province, post zone/zip code, country/region, telephone number, job title, job description.

I responded to the questionnaire on March 21, though in retrospect I felt kind of ashamed for doing so. Why did they need to know so much about me? Why was I willing to sacrifice every last shred of my privacy and more or less concede my rights as an individual? Just for another conference, another presentation for me to stick on my academic résumé?

In the end, none of it was any use. I cautiously asked them for an update on April 5. The answer: “Your case has been submitted for additional processing and your visa is pending at this time. Please be advised that cases referred for additional processing can take longer and, unfortunately, there is no way that it can be expedited.”

On April 27, the director of the ICA wrote an e-mail to the consulate emphasizing my integrity and providing further proof that I really would be participating in the conference. The answer? “Thank you for your inquiry regarding the nonimmigrant visa case of one of our applicants. As I am certain you will understand, under section 222(f) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act visa files cannot be discussed with third parties. Specifically, that section states that, ‘the records of the Department of State and of diplomatic and consular offices of the United States pertaining to the issuance or refusal of visas or permits to enter the United States shall be considered confidential’.” Sincerely, the “Visa Unit.”

I didn’t hear anything else after that. By now, the consulate had been holding onto my passport for nearly three months, making it impossible for me to leave the European Union. On May 23, one day before the conference was set to begin, I wrote an e-mail to the consulate demanding my passport back. I added a note at the end, saying, “If this is your understanding of academic freedom, then I’m really sorry.”


My case was only one of thousands. Like I said, I come from the wealthy Global North — for people from the Global South, this kind of treatment is standard.

US immigration rules are intrusive, prejudiced, and downright paranoid. But the American border regime also poses a real problem in terms of academic integrity. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the mere possibility of being denied an American visa could push international academics to even more intellectual conformity and avoiding certain fields of study. Why conduct research in Syria, Iraq, or Iran if it could lead to being barred from entering the United States? Why make critical remarks in public, let alone join a trade union or leftist organization, if it could end up restricting your freedom of movement and limiting your academic freedom?

The barriers imposed by visa restrictions also mean that scholarly interventions, ideas, and concepts developed in poorer countries have a much harder time finding an audience, as they are not present at academic conferences and thus cannot be discussed by international scholars. Intellectual networks — a highly valuable commodity in the academic world — also cannot be built if one cannot make it to the conference in the first place.

The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), the ICA’s main organizational competitor founded in 1957 as a product of the Cold War, is held all over the world, often in the Global South, for this very reason. This year it is being held in Madrid, Spain — a country with comparatively low visa barriers.

The increasingly labyrinthine path to an American entry visa demands that we as academics ask whether the United States can continue to host international academic conferences in the future. Can the ICA, which historically has been fairly US-centric, really expect international scholars to come here under such conditions? And should we be willing to put up with this kind of treatment?

On the other hand — and perhaps this is the silver lining of my whole experience — academics desperately need to cut down on jet-setting from conference to conference if we are going to do our part in addressing the climate crisis. This will necessarily mean changing the way we organize exchanges of scholarly knowledge, both in the United States and everywhere else. In that sense, the consulate’s decision to reject my visa had at least one bright side: one less intercontinental flight, and thus a little bit smaller carbon footprint on my part.