Nalini Ghuman, an up-and-coming musicologist and expert on the British composer Edward Elgar, was stopped at the San Francisco airport in August last year and, without explanation, told that she was no longer allowed to enter the United States.
Her case has become a cause célèbre among musicologists and the subject of a protest campaign by the American Musicological Society and by academic leaders like Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Ms. Ghuman was to have participated last month in the Bard Music Festival, showcasing Elgar’s music.
But the door has remained closed to Ms. Ghuman, an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who is British and who had lived, studied and worked in this country for 10 years before her abrupt exclusion.
The mystery of her case shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to defend against such a decision once the secretive government process has been set in motion.
After a year of letters and inquiries, Ms. Ghuman and her Mills College lawyer have been unable to find out why her residency visa was suddenly revoked, or whether she was on some security watch list. Nor does she know whether her application for a new visa, pending since last October, is being stymied by the shadow of the same unspecified problem or mistake.
In a tearful telephone interview from her parents’ home in western Wales, Ms. Ghuman, 34, an Oxford graduate who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, said she felt like a character in Kafka.
“I don’t know why it’s happened, what I’m accused of,” she said. “There’s no opportunity to defend myself. One is just completely powerless.”
Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, said officers at San Francisco International Airport had no choice but to bar Ms. Ghuman because the State Department, at its discretion, had revoked her visa. The State Department would not discuss the case, citing the confidentiality of individual visa records.
Mr. Botstein, who wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the hope of having the visa problem resolved before the music festival, said Ms. Ghuman’s case is symptomatic. “This is an example of the xenophobia, incompetence, stupidity and then bureaucratic intransigence that we are up against,” he said, also citing the case of a teacher of Arabic at Bard who missed the first weeks of the spring semester this year because of visa problems. “What is at stake is America’s pre-eminence as a place of scholarship.”
Ms. Ghuman’s descent into the bureaucratic netherworld began on Aug. 8, 2006, when she and Mr. Flight returned to San Francisco from a research trip to Britain. Armed immigration officers met them at the airplane door and escorted Ms. Ghuman away.
In a written account of the next eight hours that she prepared for her lawyer, Ms. Ghuman said that officers tore up her H-1B visa, which was valid through May 2008, defaced her British passport, and seemed suspicious of everything from her music cassettes to the fact that she had listed Welsh as a language she speaks. A redacted government report about the episode obtained by her lawyer under the Freedom of Information Act erroneously described her as “Hispanic.”
Held incommunicado in a room in the airport, she was groped during a body search, she said, and was warned that if she moved, she would be considered to be attacking her armed female searcher. After questioning her for hours, the officers told her that she had been ruled inadmissible, she said, and threatened to transfer her to a detention center in Santa Clara, Calif., unless she left on a flight to London that night.
Outside, Mr. Flight made frantic calls for help. He said the British Consulate tried to get through to the immigration officials in charge, to no avail. And Ms. Ghuman said her demands to speak to the British consul were rebuffed.
“They told me I was nobody, I was nowhere and I had no rights,” she said. “For the first time, I understood what the deprivation of liberty means.”
Inquiries by Ms. Ghuman’s representative in Parliament and several members of Congress, including Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have been to no avail, said Byron Adams, a professor of music at the University of California, Riverside, who said he had known Ms. Ghuman for years and respected her work.
“All of these people have gotten the runaround from the State Department,” Mr. Adams said.
Even Dick Durbin, the 2nd most powerful person in the Senate, cannot get answers from the State Department. There is no justification for how she was treated. By the way, I believe destroying government documents like a visa and defacing a passport is illegal. And yet, we still have conservatives claiming that everything's all hunky dory still, and who cares about those pesky civil liberties anyway? If someone doesn't find this story chilling to the bone, they'd probably feel more at home under an authoritarian regime than a democracy.