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Iranian Sociologist’s Dying Wish to Join His Family—Rejected by the U.S.

ProPublica profiled Rahmatollah Sedigh Sarvestani, an Iranian sociologist dying of cancer who has been refused a visa on national security grounds. His last-ditch effort to obtain a humanitarian travel permit to come to the U.S. has been denied.

A dying Iranian sociologist has been trying desperately to come to the U.S. in order to be with his family and receive potentially life-saving cancer treatment. The U.S. has just given the family its final answer: No.

We detailedDr. Rahmatollah Sedigh Sarvestani’s story last month. The 64-year-old retired professor suffers from prostate cancer and a pelvic tumor. His doctors in Iran say they have exhausted the care available there.

His wife and several children live in the U.S., where two of his daughters were born.

 The family had applied for humanitarian parole for Sarvestani — a temporary travel permit granted in extraordinary circumstances.

Sarvestani had originally been denied a visa last March, on the basis of “espionage or sabotage.” His lawyer says national security concerns appear to be the reason for the latest parole rejection as well.

But neither Sarvestani’s lawyer nor family knows what the exact concerns are. Parole is discretionary, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is not required to provide an explanation in denying an application.

Sarvestani studied in the U.S. starting in the late 1970s and supported the Iranian Revolution at the time. In an interview this week, he maintained that he never held an official position in Iran, and in recent years has been openly critical of the government there. “When I was a young person,” Sarvestani said, “I was pro-Revolution, but gradually during the years staying in Iran, I was really disappointed.”

USCIS says it does not comment on individual cases. But a spokesman said parole applicants undergo several background checks independent of those performed for previous visa decisions. Any red flags are reviewed with the agency where they originated, he said.

None of that process is made available to the applicant. 

Without any details made public, it’s basically impossible to refute them.

The government “just doesn’t have to tell us anything,” said Denyse Sabagh, an immigration lawyer who specializes in national security cases and represents Sarvestani. “It’s always hard to know which agency is driving the denial.”

Sarvestani applied for the visa in 2003, and has been in limbo for the last nine years. After the 9/11 attacks, the visa process became more protracted, according to immigration experts. Sarvestani says that he received no indication of the security concerns when his initial application was approved or during the years of waiting.

Sarvestani’s family suspects the charges date back to his student days, but it is impossible to say what more recent information the U.S. may have.

While studying for his PhD in Ohio decades ago, Sarvestani joined demonstrations in support of the Revolution and says he promoted Islamic culture through the Muslim Students Association, Persian Speaking Group. Documents and news reports from the time show that the group was under federal scrutiny for potential ties to the Iranian government. According to Sarvestani, FBI agents once questioned his department chair about Sarvestani. (See our original story for more details about the group and Sarvestani’s life.)

 In response to an information request filed by the family this year, the FBI indicated it has some 2,000 pages, but has yet to release them.  

“We were looking closely at Iranian students in the U.S.,” said Dale Watson, former assistant director of counterterrorism at the FBI. But “just because he’s a member of a student group, it wouldn’t be a showstopper,” said Watson, who said he has no specific knowledge about the case. “There must be more to the story than that.” The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

Sarvestani says that his only direct interaction with authorities in the U.S. came on the eve of his departure, when he was approached by two government officials who encouraged him to stay in the U.S. He skipped a meeting with them, and returned to a teaching position at the University of Tehran.

Sarvestani came back to the U.S. once, in 1994, to spend a sabbatical year in California. He recalled being held up at customs in Los Angeles for hours. When an officer questioned him, he said, it was a short conversation, about his academic plans. “He told me, the State Department doesn’t want you here,” Sarvestani says. But the officer allowed him to enter, telling him to check in with officials at U.C. Davis, where he was spending the sabbatical.

Sarvestani returned to Iran in 1995 but his wife and children stayed behind to attend school in the U.S. “I never wanted to go to the U.S. and stay there,” Sarvestani said. “I was eager to visit them, but I actually wanted to stay here and do something, and be in my country.”

Sarvestani says that he was cautious about corresponding with colleagues in the U.S. after returning to Iran. He was frequently criticized as too pro-Western. Just the fact that he had extended his sabbatical for a few unpaid months, he said, led to rumors. “All U.S. educated people were naturally labeled as U.S. spies,” he said. Early in his career, an Islamic student group successfully campaigned for his resignation as dean of social sciences.

Former students described him as having a moderating role at the university, where proponents of secular education frequently battled Islamic hardliners. “Many theses and proposals could be denied if [Sarvestani] was not on the committee,” said Vahid Tooloei, a former student who now lives in Canada.

Sarvestani supported the reformist Green movement in Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. He also started a blog that was openly critical of the government. In one post, entitled “A House Collapses on Its Own Weight,” he wrote. "Freedom of expression, freedom of thought and opinion, freedom of belief, are the essential rights of all human beings. I wish this bitter play would end soon.”

 “Authorities were warning me about the danger of this blog, but I really didn’t care,” he said. “I said at my 60 years of age, I have to do something, I have to say something.”

Not long after the election, Sarvestani’s blog was shut down, and he was pressured to retire from teaching.

Asked whether he was concerned about remaining in Iran given his political position, Sarvestani said, “right now my cancer is governing me, mentally and physically.” He says he is in constant pain and has trouble sleeping. He has fallen in the street several times.

The family has not decided what’s next now that the parole decision has been issued. One of his daughters lives in Germany, and has looked into options there. Oncologists’ recommendations, reviewed by ProPublica, say that the treatments he needs are available only in the U.S.

More than 2,500 people, many of them identifying themselves as former students, have signed an online petition encouraging the government to allow Sarvestani in.

Parole decisions are sometimes revised, according to Sabagh, Sarvestani’s lawyer. But it’s unclear what the chances are of that happening.

There are few avenues to challenge an immigration decision in court. Sabagh believes it might be possible, given that some of Sarvestani’s children are U.S. citizens, to get standing in federal court. In such cases, the government can be compelled to show that it had a “facially legitimate” reason to deny the visa – something beyond just citing the category under which it was denied.

But those cases are rare, lengthy, and costly. “Because of our limited financial resources, and my father’s limited life expectancy, I don’t think that contesting it in court will get us anything in the time we have,” said Sarvestani’s daughter, Sahra.

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