Music Scholar Barred From U.S., but No One Will Tell Her Why
By NINA BERNSTEIN
Published: September 17, 2007
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 is certainly not alone in her frustration. Academic and civil liberties groups point to other foreign scholars who have been denied entry without explanation at an airport, or refused a visa when they applied. A pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the Bush administration is using heightened security measures to keep foreign scholars out on ideological grounds in violation of the First Amendment rights of American scholars to hear them.
But Ms. Ghuman's case does not seem to fit such a pattern. Few believe that her book in progress, “India in the English Musical Imagination, 1890-1940," or her work on Elgar, best known by Americans for "Pomp and Circumstance," could have raised red flags in Washington. And if it were a question of security profiling, nothing in her background fits.
She was born in Wales. Her mother is a British homemaker, and her father, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Wales, was born in India to a Sikh family and moved to Britain in the 1960s. Last semester, Ms. Ghuman tried to teach her students by video link. This academic year, she is on an unpaid leave of absence.
"The arbitrary and inexplicable exclusion of Dr. Ghuman has been a personal tragedy for her and a cause of distress to Mills and to American higher education," said Janet L. Holmgren, the president of Mills College, who called her “one of our most distinguished faculty members.”
"She seems to be in this limbo," said Ms. Ghuman’s fiancé, Paul Flight, 47, who has visited her three times in Britain and is considering a move there. Mr. Flight, a countertenor, co-directed Darius Milhaud's opera about Orpheus and Eurydice with Ms. Ghuman at Mills three years ago. [read on...]