- Marixa Lasso left for Panama just two months after she and Jim Raden were married.
Marixa Lasso and Jim Raden took their wedding vows in March, beneath the arched ceilings and candlelit chandeliers of the Rockefeller building in Cleveland Heights. A fire crackled in the hearth, warming the beige shawl that hugged Lasso's bare shoulders. Her dark hair shimmered under a wreath of white roses.
The family Lasso had adopted for herself here, thousands of miles from her native Panama, encircled her that day. Fellow Case history professor Renée Sentilles provided the flowers and decorated the cake; a grad student's husband played DJ.
At 38, Lasso had waited long for this moment. Her youth was dedicated to building the perfect résumé — winning prestigious fellowships, gaining two coveted posts as a professor of Latin American history, writing a book. By the time she met the sandy-haired software engineer who would become her husband, she had already moved across the continent from California, bought a house, and planted a rose garden.
She and Raden were planning an all-American life. They would turn their sun room into a porch, spend their mornings listening to public radio, and look forward to little feet running on their hardwood floors.
Just two months after the wedding, the newlyweds steeled themselves for a brief separation. Lasso needed to spend the summer doing research in Panama. Raden flew down for a visit in June, urging her to hurry back. She planned to join him in August for a surprise birthday party for his mother. Then she'd return to Cleveland to teach her fall classes.
But when Lasso went to the U.S. consulate in Panama for a routine visa renewal, she hit a strange roadblock. After living, studying, and working in the United States for 13 years, she was suddenly barred from re-entering the country. Her visa could not be issued. She had to wait for additional "procedures."
No one could tell her why or how long it would take. All she knew is that she must wait, thousands of miles away from her husband and her life.
The irony of her predicament was not lost on Lasso. When she first came to the U.S. in 1994, she was invited by the American government. She won a coveted Fulbright fellowship — a program that, in addition to sending Americans abroad, funds academics wanting to do research in the United States. The program's quaint goal is to promote "mutual understanding" between America and other countries, and it worked well in Lasso's case.
She used the funding to earn a master's degree in history from Pitt, then got a doctorate at the University of Florida. A tiny woman with dark, sparkling eyes who quotes the Statue of Liberty's "huddled masses" inscription in her e-mails, she wrote about hot topics such as race and revolution in Colombia 200 years ago. Viewed as a rising star in her field, she had no trouble snagging a job at Cal State Los Angeles in 2002. It was a tenure-track position, offering the gold medal of academia — lifetime job security — if she did well.
Meanwhile, the world outside the ivory tower was changing. After 9/11, academics with names like Habib and Ramadan began to arouse suspicion. Even Asians, Latinos, and certain Europeans suddenly became a threat to unseen bureaucratic eyes within the U.S. government. Foreign scholars were being shut out of the country due to rarely explained visa problems.
Take Haluk Gerger, a Turkish political scientist and journalist who has criticized the presence of American nuclear weapons in Turkey. He was frequently jailed in his own country for protesting his government's treatment of Kurds. When he and his wife tried to visit America in October 2002, he experienced a strange moment of déjà vu. They landed at Newark airport and were informed that his 10-year visa had been revoked. He was fingerprinted, photographed, and forced to return to Europe.
A few months later, Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a Cuban scholar and former ambassador to the European Union, applied for a visa to speak in Dallas at the Latin American Studies Association's International Congress. He had no reason to expect trouble. He'd been a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins and had recently finished a research fellowship at Harvard.
But after State Department officials in Havana discovered that he planned to lecture about the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, his visa was denied. No reason was given, but Treto was certain it wasn't a bureaucratic glitch. "Obviously they are trying to punish me for being so critical of U.S. policy toward Cuba," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The same thing has happened to thousands of foreign scholars since the Twin Towers fell. While academics always had their fair share of immigration problems, Bush's war on terror provided a convenient excuse to bar critics — whether real or imagined — from entering the U.S.
Many who got stuck had nothing in their background that could even remotely be linked to terrorism. They merely studied subjects — or expressed views — considered sensitive by the Bush administration. In fact, their most common crime seemed to be harboring left-leaning sympathies for the underdog.
As the feds tightened visa checks, consular officials were warned that if they had doubts about an application, they should send it on to the bureaucratic jungle in Washington, D.C. Academics weren't told why their visas had been flagged or how long the reviews would take. People were delayed for months or forced to cancel their trips altogether. Most never received an explanation.
"After September 11 this became a very great concern," says Penny Rosser, director of the International Scholars Office at MIT. "The number of delays and denials skyrocketed for students and scholars."
Professors and organizations accustomed to studying Mayan ruins and evolutionary theory suddenly found themselves writing letters to Condoleezza Rice, pleading the innocence of colleagues. As time passed and the protests grew louder, the feds eased up a little. Rosser says the number of annual visa delays for MIT scholars has dropped from the double digits to "fewer than a handful now."
But that doesn't mean the problem has been solved. If anything, the selection of targeted scholars has become even harder to explain.
Greek economics professor John Milios made the American Association of University Professors' list of most troubling cases. Last year, he was on his way to a conference at the State University of New York when he was stopped at JFK airport. Milios said government officials questioned him about his political affiliations. He specializes in Marxist theory, belongs to the Coalition of the Radical Left, a minority party in Greece, and was twice a candidate for parliament. They sent him home.
Meanwhile, Bolivian historian Waskar Ari gained near-celebrity status when his visa application was blocked by the Department of Homeland Security for two years. As a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown, Ari specialized in studying race and the politics of the native people of Latin America. The subject is close to his heart — he's a member of the indigenous Aymara and writes about their history.
The University of Nebraska was eager to hire him. Before starting the new job, he went back to Bolivia to visit his family and switch his visa status from student to professor. But for unknown reasons, the university was told that his application had been passed to Homeland Security for a "security check." As months passed without word, the university and historian groups around the world took up Ari's cause.
Finally, the university hired an immigration lawyer to sue Homeland Security. Only when faced with the prospect of appearing before a judge did the government relent. Ari finally got his visa in July. Yet members of the bespectacled set are still outraged.
"The idea that these scholars pose even the remotest threat to America and U.S. national security seems extremely far-fetched," says Barbara Weinstein, president of the American Historical Association. "All I can imagine is, we're starting to have arbitrary background checks on foreign scholars."
Michael Maggio, the lawyer who represented Ari, says it's more complicated than it appears. In Ari's case, the professor seemed to be a victim of guilt by association. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is friendly with Venezuela's anti-Bush President Hugo Chavez. Maggio found out that Ari had been "denounced" by critics in Bolivia, and it took the U.S. government a while to figure out that the accusations were false.
"The reach is incredibly broad," Maggio says. If you're open to talking with someone whose political views clash with the Bush administration, "The conclusion is drawn that you're one of them."
But Cleveland immigration lawyer David Leopold isn't so quick to cry McCarthyism. To him, the situation smacks of a less pernicious, more pervasive problem: garden-variety government bungling. Many people — from doctors to professors — have visa trouble because they have common last names and the feds confuse them with someone else.
"Basically, you're relying on [government] databases that are very cumbersome and in many cases don't work," he says. "Many good people get caught in this sort of web."
In this climate, even a British music professor is not safe. In August 2006, Nalini Ghuman, a teacher at Mills College in California, was stopped at the San Francisco International Airport on her way back from a research trip. Armed immigration officers tore up her visa and "seemed suspicious of everything from her music cassettes to the fact that she had listed Welsh as a language she speaks," according to an account in The New York Times. A government report also mistakenly described her as "Hispanic."
Although Ghuman had been living in this country for a decade, her visa was revoked. She has been stuck in Britain ever since. She still has no idea why.
For a while, Lasso seemed immune to this chaos. The feds never gave her any trouble as she traveled home to Panama or to conferences in South America at least once a year. In 2003, she even secured a special visa reserved only for "aliens of extraordinary ability" — such as baseball players, Hollywood stars, and great minds.
Two years later, Case Western Reserve's history department managed to woo her away from Cal State. From her first job interview, she won the hearts of colleagues with her spirit, intellect, and untethered sweetness. She would become Case's only historian specializing in Latin America, beating out more than a hundred other applicants for the job.
"She's extremely smart and spunky, and has very sharp observations about the world," says history professor Gillian Weiss.
"She's first-rate. She's world-class," adds Jonathan Sadowsky, chairman of the department. "She was easily the first choice of the department."
Lasso found a perfect professor's house, with round brick steps, an overgrown tangle of a garden, and sun-drenched floors, within walking distance of the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights. She cooked dinner and took walks with her colleague, Sentilles. Together they learned to coax roses out of soft earth. Soon, she started lobbying another professor, Rhonda Williams, to move in down the street.
"She's that kind of person — wanting her friends close," Williams says.
One Saturday morning, while Lasso was sampling Japanese salad dressing with a friend at the Shaker Square farmers' market, she caught Raden's eye. Pale and endearingly fumbling, full of angles and data where she is soft and unabashedly direct, he was immediately stricken.
"My first thought was, I should come to the market more often," Raden remembers.
Their initial date started with coffee and stretched into dinner. Soon, they discovered a mutual love for indie movies and long hikes. He also discovered the pleasure of cooking with a woman who can sear a steak to red-hearted perfection.
The couple fell into a romance so natural that Raden's proposal was almost an afterthought. Last January, they were sitting on the couch, and he simply asked the question. She replied, quite practically, that she had a spring break coming up. Why not get married then?
And so it was that in May, just two months after the wedding, she boarded a plane for Panama to begin research on a new project about the creation of Panama City's first suburb. The couple had no reason to worry. In 13 years, Lasso never had a problem traveling. True, her sister and mother had mysteriously been turned away at the Atlanta airport when they tried to attend her wedding. But they were never given a reason, and didn't suspect it could happen to Lasso too. Besides, Lasso had already renewed her work permit with Homeland Security. She never imagined that the U.S. embassy in Panama — the same organization that helped select her for the Fulbright — would give her trouble.
"I have never had a problem going anywhere before," she said in a muffled phone call from Panama. "Never, ever, ever."
And no one could offer an explanation for her troubles. Citing "privacy concerns," State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth refused to discuss her case. When asked why someone's visa application might be flagged for additional review, he said he would have someone call back to explain. No one ever did.
Such stonewalling is central to an immigration system groomed in the age of terrorism. No one knows, for example, if words like "nuclear medicine" in a visa application might prompt a security alert. MIT's Rosser says there used to be a watch list of certain academic disciplines, but that list is no longer public.
On MIT's website, scholars are warned that security flags might arise because consular officials "cannot understand the kind of work the person is doing." In other words, whether you're a physicist or a historian who studies 19th-century revolutions, you should never underestimate the ignorance of the U.S. government.
Maggio, the Washington lawyer who represented Professor Ari, says things have gotten worse in the age of cyberspace. The feds can now Google people, or check them out on MySpace or YouTube, and follow whatever random tips come up.
Lots of people from Latin America get targeted because of the region's left-leaning politics and the ongoing drug war, he says. And since the government's background checks are so broad, a professor could get flagged even if a federal agency supports their beliefs. In Lasso's case, if a DEA agent sat in on her class about Colombia and later wrote something praising her, it might be enough to get her visa records sent over to his agency and subsequently flagged.
"It's immigration," Maggio says. "There's no rational explanation."
But even under these conditions, colleagues agree Lasso shouldn't be a suspect. She has always kept her political opinions to herself, never joining activist groups or protests. The most controversial thing she studies is the Colombian drug war — and even that is a stretch, since most of her research focuses on events that took place 200 years ago.
"In Marixa's case, it is completely mystifying," says Weinstein, the historical association president who wrote a letter to the State Department on her behalf.
"Someone who does colonial Latin America can be stopped?" adds Sentilles. "This is crazy."
The summer languished as Lasso awaited her fate. July stretched into August, then September, with no word on her visa. She rented an apartment in Panama, throwing herself into research and work at a museum. Raden attended his mother's birthday party in Florida alone, feeling the ache of his bride's absence in a hotel room meant for two.
Back in Cleveland Heights, Lasso's garden grew unruly and choked with weeds. Thank-you notes for their wedding gifts went unwritten. Raden invested in international calling cards and e-mailed his wife pictures of her roses.
"We talk every day," he said simply. "You have to."
Still, the uncertainty was killing them. If Lasso had some idea how long the process would take — or that it would end with a plane ticket home — it might be easier. But the consulate told her nothing. "We don't know how to plan our lives now," she said.
Case was forced to cancel her fall classes, leaving a giant hole for students studying south-of-the-border history. Chairman Sadowsky's pleas for help from Senators George Voinovich, Sherrod Brown, and even Republican leader Mitch McConnell weren't having much effect. Each time they got a call from Capitol Hill, State Department officials would say only that Lasso's case was pending. So her friends and students started blitzing the media, launching letter-writing campaigns and holding meetings to rally support.
Raden suddenly found himself sweating under the glare of TV cameras, mourning the loss of his wife on the evening news.
"Who goes through this?" he asked at one point. "The only analogies I can think of are not very comforting."
By late September, the university had hired immigration lawyer Leopold to take on Lasso's case. A tense week followed in which Lasso had the strange experience of listening to her story reported on National Public Radio from her apartment in Panama. It only upset her further, since NPR in the morning was a ritual she and Raden shared.
That Sunday afternoon found Raden alone at home, cleaning and raking the leaves. In the kitchen, a measuring cup of brown liquid sat in the espresso machine. Raden had been trying to replicate a drink he calls "Café Marixa," a perfect combination of espresso and milk that only his wife could pull off.
He hadn't been to the movies since she left. He hadn't figured out where to fit his microwave or toaster oven into her kitchen. Not that it mattered, since he wasn't cooking much these days anyway.
He tried to stay upbeat, but it was tough. Just last fall, he and Lasso visited Ellis Island, New York's historic welcome center for refugees from around the world. Now that same broken system was failing him. "You guys gotta do something," he urged unseen bureaucratic gods. "You know, fix it. Because in many cases, you're hurting Americans."
The next day, as if by divine intervention, he got his wish. Lasso's sister, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, was at the U.S. Embassy in Panama trying to get her own visa renewed. Her name had become familiar enough that officials flagged her down.
"Tell your sister that she's been cleared," they said.
And just like that, the ordeal was over. By the time Lasso picked up her visa, office workers were even laughing about it. "You don't seem too dangerous to us!" they said.
Finally free to return home, Lasso decided to stay in Panama through December to finish the research she originally planned to do next semester. Raden, however, had already made arrangements to fly down for a two-week visit.
"We'll just have a regular life together," she says. "I am delighted. I'm so happy."
But of course, everything is not fine. Lasso still has to make it past TSA agents at the airport. She still has no idea why her visa was delayed or what changed their minds. And she doesn't know when she'll be able to travel outside the country again — or how many other scholars are stuck in the same situation.
"The problem itself isn't resolved, and that's what's really frustrating," says Lyz Bly, a Ph.D. candidate and friend of Lasso.
Besides, as Maggio points out, the feds just wasted a lot of time and money pursuing an innocent professor. Who knows if, while they were investigating Lasso, some guy working on a bomb in Pakistan slipped through?
"They've got a fixed amount of dollars, and that's what's scary about all this," Maggio says.
Yet having just received a miraculous gift from the U.S. government, Lasso isn't eager to criticize. She won't say whether the experience has corrupted her view of her adopted government. It's not a subject she can ever discuss lightly.
"I'm not going to talk about that," she says. "Nothing has changed. It's the same as before."
But perhaps she doesn't need to say anything. Her friends and colleagues have already done it for her. They waited nearly three months for their friend's return and weren't willing to let the incident go — especially when they thought she wasn't coming home.
"I feel betrayed by my government," Sentilles says. "I feel like they're just starting to say, 'We don't trust anyone. Especially people who think.'"