The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) wishes to bring to the attention of executive and legislative branch officials in the United States the serious obstacles to scholarly exchange erected by recently legislated changes in the Visa Waiver Program governing travel to the United States. We call on U.S. government officials to amend the law and to exert efforts when implementing the Program to ensure that academic inquiry is not impaired.
MESA’s annual meeting—and many scholarly conferences, workshops, public lectures, and seminars—have been greatly facilitated by the Visa Waiver Program. The Program has made it possible for scholars from many countries to travel to the United States for short periods and without undue advance planning and bureaucratic procedures. Without the Program, scholars are subject to lengthy procedures and opaque decision making; organizers of academic gatherings are forced to plan much farther in advance and make contingency plans for visa delays and refusals.
The benefits of the Visa Waiver Program are often reciprocated for U.S. citizens, who similarly can travel freely for scholarly purposes to a wide array of countries.
Recent changes in the Program throw up significant obstacles that particularly affect MESA members, which may inspire reciprocal moves by other countries that could restrict the ability of U.S. scholars to travel abroad. These changes, passed into law at the end of 2015, require citizens in Visa Waiver Program countries to obtain a visa prior to travel if they have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen since March 1, 2011. It also requires visas for nationals of those countries even if they are also citizens of countries eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.
Visits to these countries are part of the professional work for scholars studying the Middle East, and should not create extra visa burdens for them. A European specialist on modern Iran, for instance, should be expected to travel to Iran; avoiding the country would be detrimental to his or her scholarship. In addition, academics born in one of these countries—some of whom accepted positions in Europe and elsewhere in search of academic freedom—would be denied eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program if they retain citizenship in their country of origin.
Surely the purpose of the legislation is not to throw up roadblocks to international scholarly exchange that greatly enriches American understanding of the Middle East.
We understand that executive and legislative branch officials are now deliberating over a series of problems that have arisen from the changes made in the Program. We ask that they take special care to safeguard academic inquiry and scholarly exchange as they do so.