An assistant professor of Arabic at San Francisco State University has been stuck near the United States-Canadian border for almost three months while U.S. officials decide whether to grant him security clearance and a new visa.
Mohammad Ramadan Hassan Salama, an Egyptian citizen who had been living in the United States for seven years, traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Toronto on June 20 to upgrade his scholar visa to the more prestigious O-1 status, a step he could take only outside the country. When he arrived at the embassy, an immigration officer told Mr. Salama that he could not receive a new visa until he was given security clearance. The officer also told him that his previous visas had been canceled, leaving him stranded indefinitely in Canada -- and his fall-semester classes in turmoil.
"I was really shocked," Mr. Salama said by telephone from London, Ontario. "I have a life in the United States, I just came from there, and I had a valid visa."
Clark M. Trevor, Mr. Salama's lawyer, said about 98 percent of visa applicants have no problems obtaining security clearance. But he said the other 2 percent are subjected to additional screening that could take weeks or even months. One of his clients, he said, was stranded in France for four and a half months while awaiting clearance.
"It could take forever," Mr. Trevor said. "There is no usual turnaround time."
A spokeswoman at the State Department said Mr. Salama's case was still under review.
After canceling his airplane ticket back to the United States, Mr. Salama found temporary shelter with a colleague at the University of Western Ontario. He expected to stay only a week or two, but as the weeks passed without word from U.S. officials, Mr. Salama had to cancel plans to attend conferences in Wales and Germany and to visit his wife and two children in Madison, Wis., where he earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin.
His visa problems also forced his department chair to scramble to find a replacement instructor for the 50 students in Mr. Salama's Arabic classes.
Mr. Salama said he thought he had followed all the rules in seeking his new visa. In San Francisco he had worked with a law firm to make sure he filled out all the forms correctly. In Toronto Mr. Salama went to the embassy accompanied by a lawyer, but even the lawyer could do nothing about the security check.
Mr. Trevor said Mr. Salama's nationality and name were the likely causes of the visa problems. He said that the name "Mohammad Salama pops up about seven or eight times" on security checklists maintained by the Departments of Labor and State.
Mohammed A. Salameh was one of the terrorists convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Trevor said the coincidence could be part of the problem, but he added that Professor Salama "would have been about 15 years old at the time" of the bombing.
Mr. Salama laughed when he was told of the coincidence, but he criticized a security system that relies on names, noting that both his first name and his surname are common in the Middle East.
"It's high time," he said, "for the United States and the administration to see people beyond their names."