In 2005, when Tawfiq Ali accepted a full scholarship from the government of Saudi Arabia to study at the University of Pittsburgh, he gave up a good job working in the health-care field. But at least, he figured, he would be able to take his family with him while he got his master's degree in health-information systems.
All that changed on Aug. 6, when Ali's wife, Sahar Abduljawad, took their 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son back to Saudi Arabia to attend her sister's wedding. Ali stayed behind to start the fall term at Pitt, expecting his family's return in September.
That was four months ago.
Although Abduljawad was cleared for entry to the United States two years ago, the U.S. Department of State has not approved the re-entry visa she needs in order to return. Nor has any agency given a reason for the delay or any information on when -- or even if -- her case will be resolved.
"It doesn't make sense to me," says Ali, at an Oakland café. Part of what made the opportunity in Pittsburgh so appealing was the fact that his scholarship covered living expenses for his family, too. "It's one thing if I would have known that I would be doing this without my family; I could have prepared for that."
But if he'd known, would he have decided to come here in the first place?
"When I talked to my wife," he says, "she told me a story about how my daughter at dinner one night turned to her uncle and said, ‘Uncle, you are very lucky because you get to have dinner with your daddy. I cannot do that because my daddy is in the U.S.A.,'" Ali continues, "So, no. If I had known I had to do this without them, there is no way I would have made that choice."
Ali is not alone in his plight, locally or nationwide. According to Nazeeh Alothmany, president of Pittsburgh's Saudi Student House, there are at least 13 local cases in which Saudi students or their families have been barred from re-entering the U.S. -- even though they had previously been permitted to study here.
Some have been waiting for their visas for nearly a year, unable to return to their studies. Some are just a couple semesters away from graduation. None have any idea why their re-entry is being delayed, and U.S. consulate officials won't give them any idea when they'll be able to return.
"The biggest problem here is not being denied; at least that would give you an answer," Alothmany says. "They don't tell you ‘no' -- they don't tell you anything and you just have to wait.
"I live here, I understand the need for security, but these people have already been screened and admitted to this country. I just don't understand what the problem is now. Tawfiq and his family are good people; these are all good people. Why do they have to go through this?"
Alothmany says he hopes it's just a string of bureaucratic snafus -- an overburdened State Department, perhaps coupled with cases of mistaken identity resulting in rechecks by officials. Post-9/11 security measures have meant additional layers of bureaucracy for visa applicants: They must now contend with the State Department, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.
One example of this added scrutiny is the U.S. government's "Condor" program. According to the Department of State's Web site, the visa applications of all men between the ages of 16 and 45, who were born in one of 26 Mid-Eastern countries, are sent directly to Washington, D.C., for an extra layer of investigation. The name is tested against 20 "security databases." There are other heightened visa requirements carrying codenames such as Mantis, Donkey and Donkey Mantis, that are for applicants from countries including China, Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, Libya, Iran, Pakistan and others.
However, even with the extra layers of security, the screenings, according to the Department of State, "are expected to take less than a month."
But the obvious question, of course, is whether these delays would be happening if the students were from any other part of the world.
Ellen Freeman, an immigration attorney with Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, says Saudi-born students are facing delays all over the country.
"Sadly, it's not unusual for visa applications to take as much as seven months," Freeman says. "But that doesn't make it right."
Freeman says the Department of State has tried to be helpful -- to a point. For example, in November, the agency publicly warned Saudi students not to apply for visas during the holiday season because of the likelihood of delays.
Part of the problem, she says, is "there's not a whole lot of sympathy for the plight of these individuals. … When you try and make an argument about these delays, the first thing people say to you is, ‘Of the 19 terrorists on 9/11, 15 of them were from Saudi Arabia. You brought this on yourself.' If the government can find a way to deny a visa to a Saudi person, they will do it."
The irony, she notes, is that students like Tawfiq Ali came to the United States because of a program intended to increase the number of Saudis studying in America.
In the years after 9/11, she says, the number of Saudi students in the United States significantly declined. According to Open Doors, a nonprofit international student organization that tracks the number of international students in the United States, during the 2002-2003 school year, the number of Saudi students dropped by 25 percent, to 4,175. The numbers dropped an additional 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the following two years.
So in 2005, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah offered full scholarships to thousands of Saudis who wanted to give up their current jobs and study abroad. The scholarships included full room and board and a monthly stipend for living expenses based on the size of the student's accompanying family.
As a result, Freeman explains, the number of Saudi students coming to the U.S. leapt from its previously low totals, and the Bush administration pledged to make the issuance of student visas quicker and smoother. According to Open Doors, the number of Saudi students in the United States in the 2005-2006 school year was 3,448. In 2007, however, the number skyrocketed to 7,886 -- a jump of 128 percent.
"Foreign students are a huge draw for universities because they pay full tuition, often without any breaks," she says. "Moreover, when they apply to go to school here, their parents oftentimes have to show that they have money in the bank to pay for all four years of schooling. So instead of needing $50,000 up front, they have to have $250,000.
"Beyond that, these are usually really good, really motivated students and if it's a hassle for them to get a visa to come here, they're going to get a visa and take their money to another school in another country."
U.S. universities ramped up their recruiting efforts to get a piece of the King's ransom. But it didn't last long.
Government officials maintain that they are doing everything they can to make it easy for students to come -- and return -- here. "The United States government thinks the presence of students from abroad helps form a positive climate," says Steve Royster, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of State.
He says U.S. consulates in foreign countries fast-track initial interviews for a visa, part of an effort to "make sure no one is missing classes because they are waiting for an interview." And he says that upward of 98 percent of those who apply are qualified for a visa in three days. "Some do require additional review because we need to balance the need for security against our desire to help them further their education in the United States. But we look to resolve those cases as quickly as possible."
By that logic, however, shouldn't it be even easier to get a re-entry visa, since the student or family member has already been given the green light? And are Freeman's suspicions -- that Middle Eastern students are getting added scrutiny -- correct?
Royster asked that such questions be submitted to him in writing, but while CP obliged with a Jan. 10 e-mail, as this issue went to press, there had been no response. The status of the Department's response, much like the status of Sahar Abduljawab's visa, is still unknown.
Charles Nieman, the associate director of the Office of International Services at the University of Pittsburgh, says he is aware of some of the difficulties that some students face. But he said he could speak about the visa process only in generalities, and that he did not have specific knowledge of individual cases.
Nieman says that each time a student applies for a visa it's considered a new process. And the processing time for each applicant varies on a case-by-case basis. He adds that sometimes, the delays can be caused if there is a security concern or if some circumstances have changed between the first and second visa application. And as much as universities seek and value international students, their ability to help in these situations is very limited.
"The decision on whether to grant a visa remains solely with the consulate office," Nieman explains.
Nieman says, however, that the process for Middle Eastern students to get visas is "fairly routine now," which is a benefit to both the schools and the students. And while he wouldn't give statistics, Nieman acknowledges that, following 9/11, Pitt did see a decline in the number of Saudi students, until 2004. The number has "steadily grown" since then.
Even Alothmany, of the Saudi Student House, agrees that the university's ability to help is limited. "If there was something they could do, a call they could make, they have been very helpful," he adds.
But that's little comfort to Tawfiq Ali. Not only is he without his family, but he's feeling a financial pinch as well. The Saudi government's scholarship is scaled according to the size of a student's family: Since Ali's wife and children remain in Saudi Arabia, the government has cut his stipend by 75 percent. But he is still living in a large apartment, in case his family does return to the United States.
"Do I move to a smaller apartment, do I stay? You just don't know what to do because of this," Ali says. "I even considered transferring my credits to a school in Canada, so I could finish with my family. But I would have had to do that before the fall semester or my education would be delayed a whole year.
"If I stay here, I only have one year left. But it's hard without my family."
Immigration attorney Freeman says Ali is not alone in his plight. She believes that many of the policies pertaining to visa issuance are unfair.
Freeman says it's "clearly an issue of profiling. … I still walk through an airport and get asked about my status just because I have an accent," says Freeman, who was born in Ukraine.
"It's clear that we are not as friendly to the rest of the people in the world as we would like to portray."