A small room. A language barrier. An interrogation after hours of travel. Months spent preparing for a new life overseas, all gone in a blur.
A growing number of Iranian students share this collective memory. Many had secured admission to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. The State Department approved them for entry into the United States after a notoriously grueling, monthslong vetting process and issued them visas to come to the U.S.
But when the students reached American airports, Customs and Border Protection officers disagreed and sent them home, some with a five-year ban on reapplying to return to the United States.
Most say they were not told why they were deemed “inadmissible” — a broad label that customs officers have wide discretion to apply. What the students do know is that, at a time of rising diplomatic tensions between the United States and Iran, their plans for the future seem to have evaporated.
Some of the students asked that their last names not be published. Their stories could not be verified with CBP officials, who declined to comment on individual cases. In a statement, the agency said there were numerous potential grounds for inadmissibility, include health issues, criminality and security concerns. “In all cases, the applicant bears the burden of proof of admissibility,” the agency said.
‘They found it very funny’
Mohammad, 30, was studying at Northeastern University. He was turned away at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Oct. 6.
The officer was friendly at first. Mohammad felt confident. He had been studying at Northeastern since April 2019 and had crossed back and forth between Canada and the United States several times.
A paper Mohammad had written during his coursework in numerical electromagnetics had been chosen for presentation at a conference in Paris. But when he arrived at Logan Airport that day in October, the officer became aggressive, he said. He started yelling.
After Mohammad was told that his visa was going to be revoked, the officers took a picture of him, for their records. Then, he says, they laughed. “I looked as despondent in the photo as I felt and they found it very funny. I felt demeaned and humiliated,” he said.
Flight attendants on the trip back held onto his cellphone and travel documents until he reached Paris. When he arrived, he said, he sat in the airport crying for hours, unsure of what to do.
‘I lost my spirit’
Amin, 34, entering a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida, was turned away Jan. 1 at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.
Eight years after graduating at the top of his master’s class from the University of Tehran, Amin hoped to study for a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering in Florida. But at the airport, officers wanted to know why a former school e-mail address and an old research paper he had written were not disclosed on his visa application.
When they told him he had been deemed inadmissible and would be retuned to Iran, he collapsed onto a chair, crying.
Amin said he was placed in a chilly holding cell for six hours, then transported in cuffs and chains to an immigration detention facility in Georgia. The officers there ordered him to strip naked in front of them.
“The moment I entered the cell, I lost my spirit,” he said. Now back in Iran, he has lost $6,000 — the equivalent of two years’ work — on his travel and applications. The company he worked for has filled his old position.
‘There was so much pain’
Hamid, 22, entering a combined master’s and Ph.D. program in engineering at the University of Notre Dame, was sent back Jan. 11 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Hamid, who had been accepted for a fully funded graduate program, waited eight months for his visa. Then when he arrived in Chicago, he was placed in a holding cell for 19 hours.
Officers asked him for his opinion on political events in Iran and whether he thought Iran was doing “the right thing.” He was asked what he thought about the Ukrainian jet that had been shot down three days earlier by two Iranian missiles. Hamid told the officer he had a friend who died on the plane.
Hamid said he and two other detained travelers were given foam mattresses and thin blankets, but he hardly slept.
“After 24 hours, I was transferred to the boarding gate in the company of two armed officers, as if I was some kind of terrorist. It was both humiliating and dehumanizing,” he said.
He phoned his parents when he reached Istanbul, en route back to Tehran. “There was so much pain in my parents’ voice,” he said.
‘I am not a political person’
Reihana Emami, 35, planned to attend Harvard Divinity School. She was turned away Sept. 18 at Logan airport.
The officers’ questions were simple at first, Reihana said. But then the conversation turned to unfamiliar territory.
“He then asked me what Iranian people think about the explosion in Saudi Arabia,” she said, an apparent reference to the wave of explosions that had rocked Saudi oil facilities a few days earlier, blamed on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“I said I am not a political person — I’m interested in philosophical questions,” she said.
During the nine hours she was questioned, she said, she asked if she could rest because she had been traveling for 18 hours. But the officer told her that lots of travelers had done the same, and a Harvard student “should be clever enough to handle” it.
“Now I am jobless,” she said, adding that she and her family were still struggling to believe what happened.