Friday, January 14, 2005

Another Prominent Desi Author Has Immigration Issues

According to lit-blogger Beatrice (thanks to The Literary Saloon for the tip!) Pankaj Mishra recently got a taste of American immigration pareshaani when returning to the U.S. from South Asia. He was eventually allowed in, but not before being threatened with deportation:

Apparently I had a much easier time getting to the NYPL than Mishra did; we learned that just last week, Mishra had been coming back from a journalistic trip through Pakistan and Afghanistan when he was stopped at customs in JFK and, as he described it, "taken to a little cell where people who looked like me were sitting," where he was detained for several hours and threatened with deportation because an immigration official spotted "something on his computer" that made Mishra look suspect. Sounds like Ian McEwan got off easy compared to Mishra, who was clearly still rattled by the experience--and the blue-city New York audience was sympathetically anxious for him as well.

Now I can sort of see it if Ramachandra Guha, who is very well-known in India but less known abroad, gets the "something on my computer doesn't look right" treatment. And after all, he was just giving lectures at Oberlin and Berkeley -- are those even real colleges?

But Pankaj Mishra? I mean, come on, just Google the guy -- you get 35,000 hits! They guy has his name on seven books (counting the Naipaul Literary Occasions, and the edition of Kim for which he wrote the forward).

For all this talk about "Intelligence," I'm continually amazed by the evidence that USCIS officials are operating in its absence.


Manish said...

Rohinton Mistry had some problems a year (or maybe two) ago. He cancelled his book publicity tour of the US then complaining about the humiliating treatment meted out to him and his wife.

Quizman said...

Wait. Let us think logically. Imagine, Prof. Amardeep Singh is an immigration officer at JFK when this gent shows up. He has visas from two very high risk countries, one of which was in a state of war with this nation. Assume, Mr. Singh opens a website and googles Pankaj Mishra's name. He comes up with references of his fame. Even without considering that he read websites/interviews relating to Mishra's radical beliefs, Mr. Singh has two options:

1. Assume Mr. Mishra is a famous writer and let him go on. This assumes that all famous writers are peace loving and none of them can ever be terrorists.

2. Ask more questions, particularly about Mr. Mishra's visits to those countries.

What would Prof. Singh do?

Amardeep said...


We have only a second-hand source on this -- sorting out whether there was any logic in what they did will have to wait until Mishra says a little bit more about the incident (I'm presuming he might write about it at some point).

But Beatrice quotes him as saying he was threatened with deportation, not that he was simply asked a few questions. He is quoted as saying he was kept in a holding room for several hours for a formal interview.

My point about Google is admittedly somewhat irrelevant. I was just trying to allude to Mishra's status as a well-known journalist and writer (whose most recent book is on Buddhism, of all things). Having solid credentials as a journalist does explain why someone might have been in Afghanistan. Establishing that, whether through Google or through some more authoritative source "on the computer" of USCIS, should be reason enough to spare him the prospect of arbitrary legal action.

Another place where the lack of "intelligence" was an issue was with Tariq Ramadan, a few months ago. If the State Department had bothered to find out what Ramadan stands for, i.e., that he is solidly against interpreations of Islam that support terrorism, they would have allowed him in to do the job he had been hired by Notre Dame to do.

Currently, the only information that is thought to count is associative (where you've been, who you're related to, etc.). Any actual, substantive knowledge about a person -- what they believe, what they've said publicly -- is ignored.

Quizman said...


It is rather difficult to quantify substantative knowledge of a person, especially when it comes to covert or terrorist operations. A person may have a public persona that has been deliberately moulded to present a set of beliefs. After all, there is a risk of there being an 'Eli Cohen' like operation run by terrorists. [Didn't we damn these very authorities of not being 'creative' enough in thinking about the terrorists?]

However, I do agree that the intelligence gathering methods (as well as in some cases, laws)need to be improved. The shocking case of Shirin Ebadi's ban comes to mind.