If the headline of this post strikes you as unusual, that is because this is indeed a strange topic to write about. But today actually marks the fifth anniversary of my U.S. visa application (visitor visa) that to this day remains 'refused,' apparently pending 'administrative processing.' So joyous is this occasion that I felt compelled to buy a chocolate cake to commemorate it. I would invite you, the dear reader, to participate in this occasion by having a slice of the cake (photographed below) but lockdown circumstances mean that there is no one to share it with in reality. I can only offer you a slice symbolically speaking via the Internet so that you may partake in the monstrous merriment of this feast day.
My problems began in September 2015 when I received a sudden notification via email about a 'change' in my status under the ESTA program (an electronic authorisation system that allows passport holders from certain countries to visit the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days at a time). Under this change in status, I was no longer authorised to travel under the program. Previously in 2015 I had visited the U.S. under the ESTA twice: on one occasion to see a very special friend in the D.C. area who now lives abroad, and on the other occasion to spend time with another close friend whose family home lies in the southern Illinois countryside. Both of these people are important parts of my life.
Now, to be sure, I would not be entitled to the ESTA program anyway under new rules that were subsequently introduced, which do not allow travel under the program if one has been to Iraq or Syria during the past five years (I have been to both countries on multiple occasions during the past five years). So I would have to apply for a visa anyway even if the 2015 revocation had never happened.
There is a difference, however, between revocation of ESTA under the new rules and the revocation that happened to my ESTA, as I was to discover subsequently when my U.S. visa application was submitted following a consular interview at an embassy on 13 January 2016. I had applied for a visa at the time because I was supposed to go to the U.S. in February 2016 to attend a conference in the state of Georgia. I was informed by the consular officer that my application had to undergo 'administrative processing.' I asked whether the processing would be completed in time for me to go to the conference. The officer mentioned that efforts would be made to complete the administrative processing in time for the conference, but there was of course no guarantee implicit in those words. However, as one friend put it to me at the time, 'You can forget about going to that conference.' Indeed, five years since the application I have no final answer on it.
I tried multiple private avenues in an attempt to resolve this problem, such as contacting someone who was working at the State Department to inquire about the application. This turned up no answers for me. The only 'breakthrough' I have had is to learn for sure that I have been put on some kind of U.S. 'watchlist,' as became apparent during my detention and interrogation in December 2019 by the UK counter-terrorism (CT) police at an airport for six hours, as I was going to take a flight that crossed U.S. airspace (though I had not intended to do so, because in fact I was trying to avoid U.S. airspace out of fear that I would encounter some kind of problem). Given the extensive scrutiny of me through that detention and interrogation for six hours and then confiscation and examination of my electronic devices and some doctoral research material over a period of ten days, one would think perhaps that the information that I am not some kind of security threat was conveyed by the UK CT police to their U.S. counterparts, which would then resolve the visa issue. That was the one glimmer of hope that I had when I thought about that process I underwent at the airport. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case, as the visa application remains unresolved.
I then launched an inquiry in January 2020 via the Department of Homeland Security's Traveller Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP). I received a final response to my inquiry in April 2020, which came in the form of three letters. The first, from the DHS TRIP, included the following words:
'DHS TRIP has researched and completed our review of your case. DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. However, we have made any corrections to records that our inquiries determined were necessary, including, as appropriate, notations that may assist in avoiding incidents of misidentification.'
In addition, the document gave the following recommendation:
'When traveling by air to or within the United States, DHS TRIP recommends that you provide your redress control number (located at the top of this letter) when making your reservations. Providing this information will help prevent misidentifications from occurring during security checks against government records and other information.'
I also received a letter from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which stated nothing that I already did not know (i.e. that I am not entitled to travel under ESTA as I do not meet the program's requirements). Finally, I received a letter from the U.S. State Department, which stated:
'After reviewing your case, we have made updates to our records that our review determined were necessary. Please check with Embassy [redacted] concerning the status of your pending visa case.'
At last, I thought, a sign of hope for a final resolution? Alas, no. I proceeded to follow up with the embassy where I had applied for a visa. After being told to wait more than once on account of delays to visa operations caused on account of coronavirus pandemic disruption, I was then told that I should submit a new visa application because my application needed to be 'reevaluated given the amount of time that has passed.' In a subsequent exchange, in which I asked to know why the existing application could not simply be addressed, I was told that 'while the administrative processing has been completed, the consular officer needs to reassess your current circumstances: i.e. your ties to your country.' If the administrative processing has supposedly been completed, then should I not at least be entitled to know what the outcome of that processing was, or have some explanation as to why it was held for so long. To me, the explanation provided really seems to be another way of saying that the application was bungled and eventually forgotten about somewhere in a labyrinth of bureaucracy.
What the U.S. visa application status says when I check it online. Last checked: 13 January 2021.
And so here I am five years later with that application still unresolved with a definite 'yes' or 'no' answer, only technically 'refused' pending administrative processing. I have since filed another visa application, an interview for which is due in August (unless changes in restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic mean I can push the interview date). But given all that has happened, the more pessimistic side of me suspects the application will be similarly lost in years of administrative processing and then I will be doomed to repeat the cycle over and over again.
Is it unreasonable to expect a final answer to a visa application I paid for and spent some time and effort to fill out and submit? Is it asking too much to demand a degree of common sense be applied in assessing and vetting visa applications? I do of course realise that the problems I face here have something to do with my historical documentation and research on Iraq, Syria and jihadism, but it seems to be based on no more than some broad net and signal rather anything specific. Further, as Aaron Zelin once put it to me: Could those processing the application not just see that I am merely a researcher and writer? Indeed, everything is available on my site for the world to see. I have already explained elsewhere that at this point I see my ultimate purpose as one of contributing in some very minor way to the historical record. I do not see myself as a person influencing policy, contributing in any way to 'counter-terrorism' efforts or the like. I know some researchers have invoked the latter framing of my work to defend me and I appreciate the kind sentiment behind it, but I just don't see my work as serving that purpose. 'Counter-terrorism' practitioners, policymakers and intelligence agencies and other such people really do not need my work for any of those things. Rather, I simply see myself as a writer with various historical and present day interests and I hope that my writings objectively inform people in general in some way about the things I write about. In this regard, I consider the translation and commentary on primary source documents to be a particularly valuable enterprise in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the historical record.
I am not sure if writing publicly about this issue in depth will actually help my case. To those of you who previously suggested to me that I should try some kind of legal avenue, I appreciate the thought but the lawyers are for those seeking resolution of work visa and similar applications, not visitor visas. Some have suggested that the new Biden administration could resolve things, but it is notable that these problems for me began before the Trump administration.
Raising public awareness is thus the only option for me and it appears to have been beneficial for me and others in the past. For example, it seems that drawing attention to my second ban on WhatsApp helped to resolve the ban. Similarly, I note cases of journalists and researchers who did go public in depth about their U.S. visa issues- such as James Harkin and Jonathan Spyer- who managed to attain resolution of their cases after they did so. Whatever the outcome, I believe it is worth writing in depth on the matter to draw attention to the rather arbitrary processes and failings behind administrative processing and visa denials. In short, I say: if only there were more Aaron Zelins in the vetting process: that is, research specialists who could also apply common sense to examining applications.