Travelers with Muslim names find themselves fighting for U.S. visas

Posted on March 31, 2010


By Edward Cody, washington post foreign service
Thursday, April 1, 2010

 LYON, FRANCE — The clean-cut young Frenchman seemed to have everything going for him. Graduate of an elite French engineering school, he had interned at the upper-crust Rothschild bank in Paris, handled wealth management for a while on Wall Street and was accepted for a prestigious master’s degree program at the University of California at Berkeley.

 Except for one thing: His name was Mohamed Youcef Mami.

 The State Department held up his student visa for more than two months for “administrative processing,” which according to diplomats is the euphemism-of-art for a check against multiple watch lists maintained by intelligence agencies in Washington designed to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the United States.

 Since President Obama scolded the agencies for overlooking warning flags against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, the checks have been reinforced and the lists have grown. With that comes a higher likelihood of “administrative processing” for visa applicants whose names may resemble those of terrorist suspects but who are “guilty” of nothing more than having Muslim parents.

 While the computers whirred and security bureaucrats scrutinized their lists, Mami’s nonrefundable flight from Lyon to San Francisco departed March 18 without him, and nobody would tell him why. As a result of the delay, he missed orientation and the first week of his financial engineering courses at Berkeley. After dozens of increasingly desperate telephone calls, e-mails and letters, Mami, 27, had concluded that he was being discriminated against because of his name and that Obama’s speech in Cairo calling for friendship with the Muslim world was hollow PR.

 Post inquired about Mami’s case, the U.S. Embassy in Paris called and told him the visa was on the way. His ordeal over, Mami pounced on the Internet to look for a cheap flight to San Francisco, vowing to be in class in Berkeley by Monday morning. [more]