Iranian student set to attend MSU detained, sent back home

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

An Iranian graduate student who planned to attend Michigan State University was detained at Detroit Metro Airport on Sunday, denied entry into the United States, then returned home, his attorney said.

Alireza Yazdani Esfidajani was due to start classes this month, MSU spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant told The Detroit News.

The 27-year-old had been approved for a student visa before flying into the country on his first American visit, said Ghazal Nicole Mehrani, the Lansing-based immigration lawyer representing him.

But Yazdani told her that federal agents at the Romulus airport detained and questioned him for roughly six hours, eventually pressuring him to sign a document considered a voluntary withdrawal of admission for entry, she said. "They deemed him being inadmissible, but they never said under what grounds. They just told him it’s better to withdraw his admission. That's what he did."

Yazdani told her the officials "wanted to convince him that he had done something that was not appropriate," Mehrani said. 

He was taken to the Monroe County Jail; friends at MSU referred the graduate student to Mehrani, who spoke with him and worked to find answers from authorities.

"He was terrified and he was not happy, and today was his birthday," Mehrani said. "He just wanted to get out of the detention center."

His return flight to Iran left Monday afternoon, she said.

Reached for comment, a U.S. Custom and Border Protection representative said in a statement that while 1 million people seek admission every day at national ports of entry, "approximately 790 are refused entry daily."

"Every applicant for admission is subject to inspection upon arrival into the United States," the representative said. "The issuance of a visa or participation in the visa waiver program does not guarantee entry to the United States."

The release noted Yazdani "was not arrested, rather held until a return flight could be arranged to his place of departure. Applicants must demonstrate they are admissible into the U.S. by overcoming all grounds of inadmissibility including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds."

Meanwhile, through its Office of International Students and Scholars, MSU "has worked the past 24 hours with members of our Michigan congressional delegation, other federal support agencies and the student’s lawyer to help through this difficult situation," Guerrant said. "MSU’s international students make tremendous contributions to fueling discoveries and scholarship. Global leadership can only be maintained if talented people from across the globe are encouraged to come here to study and work."

The Michigan State Graduate Employees Union also has decried the incident on Twitter, writing that the group "will do everything in our power to help this student and end the unlawful detention and deportation of Iranians. They will not get away with this."

Yazdani could reapply for another visa, but "we just don’t know if he can get in," Mehrani said.

Mehrani noted that other Iranian students have been denied entry amid escalated tensions between the Middle Eastern nation and the United States over issues including its unraveling nuclear deal and the fallout from the recent downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight. "There's a trend right now," she said. "There's a high risk that they cannot get back."

Iran is among the countries for which the Trump administration's current ban suspends immigrant and non-immigrant visas. However, it allows exceptions, including for students and those who have established "significant contacts" in the U.S. 

In addition to the student denials, earlier this month, many U.S. citizens of Iranian descent also were questioned for hours trying to return from Canada, said Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University. "We seem doomed to repeat past mistakes. For example, we now realize that interning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II was a mistake. Congress even passed a law in 1988 apologizing for the internments and making reparations."

The professor added that "detaining people of Muslim descent after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and making them go through special registration procedures failed to yield any significant results in finding and deterring other terrorists. 

"Turning back Iranian students at the border may be legal, but it isn't necessarily good policy. As Benjamin Franklin once said, 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.' ”