Saturday, September 25, 2004

Who Goes There?

Most visitors to the US know that not even a valid visa can guaranty entry into the United States. Nor is America alone in this. Generally speaking, no foreign national can enter another country as a matter of right.  Louis Farrakahan found that holding an American passport did not entitle him to enter Britain in 2002. Nor is politics always a factor: bureaucrats can act in arbitrary ways.

One of Laura Bush's favourite British authors has been refused entry to the US, a day before he was due to lecture to an audience of 2,500 people. Ian McEwan was stopped by immigration officials as he left Vancouver airport, in Canada, for an engagement in Seattle. The man who was last year invited to Downing Street by Cherie Blair to meet American's first lady - who said she keeps a McEwan novel by her bedside - found himself detained for four hours before being turned back. McEwan, who recently won America's National Book Award for his novel Atonement, was travelling to the US as a guest of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Officials there told him he did not need a visa. But the immigration officer felt differently.

So when Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, declared he was going to take legal action to "undo the very serious, and wholly unfounded, injustice which I have suffered" as a result of his spectacular deportation from the United States, he appeared to be trying to refute the accusation that he was a Hamas supporter, rather than to directly compel the US government to admit him, though the second would would probably follow if the first could be achieved. "I am a man of peace and denounce all forms of terrorism ... it is simply outrageous for the US authorities to suggest otherwise." Islam has denied being a Hamas supporter, saying that his donations have always been for humanitarian causes like orphanages in Hebron. Islam's had similarly been refused him entry to Israel in 2000, before September 11. The accusations against him then and Islam's rebuttal are eerily similar to the most recent incident.

Islam, 51, who changed his name after becoming a Muslim in the late 1970s, was refused entry into Israel hours after arriving Wednesday. The former singer said he was told only that he was a "threat to national security.''

Israeli Defense Ministry officials refused to comment on Islam's case other than to say that the Shin Bet, Israel's internal intelligence agency, had ordered him barred from the country. The Maariv Daily in Israel reported that the government claimed Islam had delivered tens of thousands of dollars to Hamas, a militant Islamic group, during his last visit in 1988.

"Upon my return to London, reports were already circulating that the Israeli authorities were trying to excuse their actions by linking me to terrorist groups,'' Islam said in a statement. "I want to make sure that people are aware that I've never knowingly supported any terrorist groups -- past, present or future. It's simply an attempt to cast doubt again on my character and good intentions.''

Islam has contributed sums of money to orphanages in Kosovo and Bosnia too. The US position is that while it can't prove anything in court -- it doesn't need to prove anything to deny an alien entry into the America. Colin Powell responded to accusation that Islam had been unfairly treated by saying:

"We have no charges against him," Mr Powell told reporters at the foreign press centre. "We have nothing that would be actionable in our courts, or in the courts in the United Kingdom, I'm sure. "But it is the procedure that we have been using to know who is coming into our country, know their backgrounds and interests and see whether we believe it is appropriate for them to come in," he said.

"With respect to Cat Stevens ... our Homeland Security Department and intelligence agencies found some information concerning his activities that they felt under our law required him to be placed on a watch list and therefore deny him entry into the United States," Mr Powell said. "In this instance, information was obtained that suggested he should be placed on the watch list and that's why he was denied entry into the country," he said.

The shock power in the Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) affair lies precisely in Colin Powell's tone: the cold determination to deny even the most prominent persons entry into the US if suspected of terrorist links. For decades being turned back at the US border was an indignity reserved for poor Mexicans, Filipinos and such. Visitors from Europe and especially the Transatlantic commuter set were spared these inconveniences, as were millionaires from Third World hell-holes, who had the telephone number of a high-priced immigration lawyer at their fingertips as insurance against such misunderstandings. Even the Saudis could expect to be waved past immigration in the pre-911 age, courtesy of the Visa Express program.  Joel Mowbray wrote in 2002.

Three Saudis who were among the last of the Sept. 11 homicide hijackers to enter this country didn't visit a U.S. embassy or consulate to get their visas; they went to a travel agent, where they only submitted a short, two-page form and a photo. The program that made this possible, Visa Express, is still using travel agents in Saudi Arabia to fill this vital role in United States border security.

But now men traveling first-class in bespoke business suits know that neither wealth nor fame nor that immigration lawyer's telephone number can keep F-16s from popping out of the dark and escorting their flight to Bangor, Maine, from where the Mexicans might be allowed to continue, but not them. While Mr. Islam is certainly entitled to pursue legal action and may in the end be vindicated, the incident shows more clearly than any other that it's not September 10 any more. America is at war in a way that it never was in Vietnam. This one is for keeps.