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Bon voyage? Not quite…

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While boundless elation at the onset of Christmas and New Year was setting in for college students across America at the end of their working terms in December, a whopping 30-plus not-so-fortunate Indian students were subject to torment that remains unjustifiable on so many levels. What should have been euphoria at the prospect of a new year and new beginnings turned into a 2015 capped off on the most indelible note possible. First, on 20th December, 19 students from three different cities in India were forbidden from stepping onto India’s national carrier Air India’s newly-established flight to San Francisco. And with the educational hub for Indians and internationals alike that Silicon Valley is, it is needless to say that this is where the envisioned final destination for these students was. Alas though, it remained a vision!

Officials in India claimed that these 19 students were en route to two universities in the Valley that have been blacklisted by the U.S. government. These are Silicon Valley University in San Jose and Northwestern Polytechnic University in Fremont. The vagueness associated with this happening did not for a minute cease to amuse any reader. And if these universities are indeed “under scrutiny,” how is it that this was concealed from such a sizable contingent ready to pack its bags and travel all the way to the U.S.? Or, as a varying version of the tale goes, were these 19 students really forbidden only to save them from the embarrassment of deportation that 14 students before them had to muster the resilience to deal with?

To add to the saga, even before this 20th of December incident, 14 other students were detained and deported back from San Francisco International Airport at the behest of the immigration authorities here. Back home, while I was luxuriating in a much needed winter break, the emergence of this news on numerous media platforms left me dumbfounded (especially since this had to do with people so close to home). Empathy had completely overtaken me; I am also an Indian student who once took a flight to San Francisco with the eventual aim of finding myself at my alma mater after a grueling journey. The fundamental identity and miles traversed to get here are virtually the same in both cases. A striking headline read, “They went with college dreams, came back after three days in jail.” This headline encapsulated the anguish and humiliation that had now transferred onto a large section of the Indian readership. In a natural yet immoral departure from this empathy, I went on to realize that my institution is Stanford –- I will, in all probability, never have to see an absurd day like the one these hapless students had to. But I still wonder: “How and why did this even happen?’

While many pundits claim that the airline’s debarring of the 19 students from entering the plane was invaluable in saving them from mortification once in the States, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi said it would be in regular communication with the Department of Homeland Security to seek a closer analysis of the scenario. Although the incident was initially viewed as a minor impediment in smooth bilateral ties between India and the U.S., this fact was nullified as more and more clarification about the incident poured in. The universities released official statements confirming that they are not blacklisted, hinting at the very fact that there might have been gross miscommunication between the staff of the Indian carrier and its counterpart here in California. How this miscommunication transpired is too intricate to delve into and impossible to glean. What I do know is that such communication gaps (assuming this was the cause) are absolutely ridiculous and result in implications far too insurmountable to be ignored. An indelible stamp of “no entry” for aspiring students is more than just a stamp –- it is a blot of quashed hope.

While it does not seem too plausible that those 14 deportations resulted entirely from the universities’ being blacklisted (which seemed less likely as the story unfolded and as official statements were issued), the inability of those students to answer fundamental immigration questions or even absence of particular documents have been cited as probable explanations. The upsetting thing here is that online alerts by the universities on carrying proper documentation were put up only after this incident. Nevertheless, the institutions were prompt enough to contact the debarred students and inform them of the prospect of safe entry the very next week.

Amongst all growing deliberation back in India, the standout argument is the notion of supplementing the F-1 visa with better resources for preparation for immigration interviews (which are often seen as daunting, especially to newly-exposed travelers). This in fact was a manifestation of the mature realization that the botch-up in a case like this could have very easily been from either party. Though this bizarre turn of events — from pre-boarding of the flight to everything that followed — is still shrouded in uncertainty, the issue is still food for thought for those of us who may never have thought of traveling for educational endeavors in such convoluted or unnerving terms. It is almost an extended reflection on how expeditiously getting to one side of a place/situation leads considerations of the other side of the spectrum to constantly recede from our view (both metaphorically and physically). And I say this because, at the cost of a parting reiteration, perusing the front page of my city’s newspaper that ill-fated day during break made me more grateful for hassle-free travel back to California than ever I have ever been.

Contact Arjun Soin at asoin ‘at’ stanford.edu.