The plan was to travel to Phoenix, Arizona and give a talk at the Cultural Evolution Society Conference. So King’s College London paleoarchaeologist Katie Manning, Ph.D., and her family prepared for travel, booking flights and organizing a camping trip in Joshua Tree National Park. However, a few days before her trip, Manning received some alarming news. The United States wasn’t going to let her in.
America’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) had denied her eligibility to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program because of her travels to Sudan for her work. On October 17, Manning tweeted out the news and received nearly a thousand retweets repeating her message: “I’m in shock.”
Manning is not the only archaeologist — or scientist, for that matter — who has been stalled or banned at the US border because of their travels to ESTA’s blacklisted countries, which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely Islamic nations. As she and other scientists tell Inverse, it’s shaping the international scientific community for the worse.
When Manning went to the US embassy in London to ask what could be done, the response was, at best, unsympathetic. She was told that because she conducted fieldwork in Sudan in 2014 — four years ago — she would have had to apply for a visa at least six to eight weeks prior to travel.
But this explanation didn’t capture the full scope of her predicament. In truth, it’s unlikely anything would have changed much if she’d applied early. Because Sudan is one of the countries blacklisted by the ESTA program, she would have needed to apply for a full visa — not just a visa waiver, like most travelers from approved nations.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from specific countries to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa, and ESTA is the automated system that determines the eligibility of these visitors. If you’re from a country that’s approved for this program, like the UK, you usually need to start the ESTA application process only 72 hours before you leave.
Manning’s trip to Sudan changed her situation entirely. In January 2016 the implementation of the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 determined that even if you’re from a VWP country, if you have “traveled to, or been present in, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011” you’re no longer eligible for the VWP. In June 2016 the same rules were applied to Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
“Admittingly, I was unaware of these changes and maybe I should have been aware,” Manning says. “Most of my American colleagues have no idea what an ESTA is and my international colleagues who are aware of it are so because they’ve gone through the process of applying and being denied.”
Rachel Kendal, Ph.D., current president of the Cultural Evolution Society, tells Inverse that others weren’t able to attend the conference because of similar border control-linked issues. Manning was able to give her talk on Neolithization in Europe and the evolution of agricultural economies by Skype, but in the end, it was a setback for multiple parties.
“Delegates, and Katie, lost out on the anticipated interactions during the conference and the potential for networking and improving the representation of archeologists in the field of cultural evolution,” Kendal says. “U.S. Border Control needs to recognize that there are many legitimate reasons that individuals may have connections to the countries on their ‘black list.’”
Surprising though Manning’s experience was, it’s becoming an increasingly common occurrence. ESTA’s bureaucratic strife and antagonism, say academics, are making the US a very unattractive option for gatherings of scientists. Here, nobody wins: both international academics and the US scientific community stand to lose valuable support.
Cameron Petrie, Ph.D. is a reader in South Asian and Iranian Archeology at the University of Cambridge. When he attempted to travel to the United States in 2017, his electronic application for ESTA was denied. Luckily, he had applied for ESTA early enough that he was still able to make his trip by applying through a full visa.
“I have traveled to Iran many times for my research, and the law has had some effect on me in that it makes getting a visa more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive than before,” Petrie tells Inverse.
Meanwhile, Scott MacEachern, Ph.D. is a professor of archeology and anthropology at Duke Kunshan University whose work often takes him to Africa. He tells Inverse that he’s seen the effect of border controls curbing the ability of his colleagues to attend conferences and other kinds of academic interchanges, especially his African peers.
“This got really bad post 9/11 — so much so that the World Archeological Congress in D.C. in 2003 had real problems with attendance from different parts of the world, including Africa, because attendees from many other countries simply couldn’t get visas,” MacEachern explains. “It’s gotten worse since then. There are many countries whose nationals have no straightforward pathway to getting to the United States — that’s not even counting the effects on people like Dr. Manning, who is a citizen of a close ally of the United States, but who is penalized because of the countries she travels to for scientific purposes.”
Just this summer, MacEachern was on the organizing committee of a conference of African archeologists. They decided to change the venue from an American city to a Canadian city because “of the problems we anticipated in obtaining U.S. visas for our colleagues from Africa.” He says that this decision was made after a couple of US conferences in which every African participant was denied their visa.
“None of our African colleagues would be allowed to attend,” elaborates Manning, who is also involved with the Society of Africanist Archeologists conference. “They would not be allowed into the country. So it’s simply not worth it trying to hold those meetings there.”
Conferences, are extremely important events for academics to share their findings, update their expertise, form new collaborations, and become inspired with new ideas. Stuart Watson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in animal behavior and cognition at the University of Zurich, says “it is critical for science as a whole — not to mention the careers of scientists themselves — that these events are as accessible as possible to researchers from all backgrounds and nations.” He, too, has heard a number of researchers argue that international conferences should not be held in the United States until there is a change in policy.
“Free movement,” Kendal says, “of academics in order to collaborate and ensure the diversity of opinions and experiences of all academics are heard, is vital for the progress of any academic field.”
Of course, there are far more devastating repercussions of the ban, admits Watson. “This inconvenience is a drop in the ocean compared to the suffering these hostile immigration policies inflict upon the less fortunate individuals they are designed to target.” In 2017, President Donald Trump banned or restricted visas for travel to the US for the countries within the ESTA ban as well as Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela. In June 2018, these bans were upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, argued that the ban wasn’t justified on national-security grounds — the point endorsed by Chief Justice John Roberts — but “was driven primarily by anti-Muslim animus.”
For researchers on the outside, it’s a clear indication that the United States isn’t as appealing as it once was.
“The United States needs to get over its cultural and political fear factor associated with non-Americans,” MacEachern says. “But I don’t see that happening any time soon.”