airport_security
Photo: Tobin Jones / AMISOM

When College sophomore Mustafa Amjad landed at Philadelphia International Airport en route to Penn, he was locked in a room with United States customs agents for “at least an hour” where his bag was checked and he was asked about his membership to terrorist groups or militias in Pakistan, the country he calls home.

That was over one year ago.

Even before Trump's immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, which has sparked anxiety among students who are citizens of these nations, some international students said that they have faced intense vetting processes while traveling to and from Penn. 

Amjad said that he is nervous about traveling internationally in light of President Trump’s executive order — he’s already cancelled his spring break plans to Cancun, Mexico — but he and other Penn students with ties to Muslim-majority countries don’t see how Trump’s new policies can make it any more difficult to enter the US than it already has been.

Shortly after Amjad was accepted to Penn in the Early Decision admissions round, he enrolled in a university in Pakistan, his home country. His first student visa application was rejected.

“The first time I went [for my visa interview] my interviewer was trying to be very intimidating … She was just being very forceful … She’d cut me [off in the] middle of my sentence and be like what are you going to the U.S. for?” he said.

His second attempt at obtaining a visa was successful. 

Engineering sophomore Sunia Bukhari, who was born in the United States but was raised in Pakistan, is accustomed to entering the U.S. with a Secondary Security Screening Selection status on her boarding pass, which marks her for more intensive security checks. Every time she boards a flight to the U.S., she makes sure her phone and laptop are charged because if she can’t turn them in upon request at security checkpoints, they’ll be confiscated.

Bukhari said that she has even been intensely questioned during a layover in Paris while returning to Penn after winter break.

She was asked what type of music she listened to followed by questions on how far Penn was from where she lived in Pakistan. Bukhari, to avoid more questions, replied that she was born in New York.

Bukhari asked at various airports why she’s always marked, and has been told, to her dissatisfaction, that it is random. She suspects it’s related to her name — a few years ago at Los Angeles International Airport while wearing “bubblegum-pink jeans,” the TSA agent supposed to check her didn’t take her seriously. 

Bukhari said that the TSA agent was in disbelief that she was on the screening list.

“All my brown friends get [the Secondary Security Screening Selection],” she said.

Penn faculty and students who are also nationals of countries that are listed in Trump's immigration ban also said that they faced extreme vetting before the executive order.  

Osama Ahmed, a 2016 College and Wharton graduate, missed his return flight to Penn from Canada last year after he was stopped from boarding and asked the usernames of all of his social media accounts. Ahmed is a dual citizen of Pakistan and Canada, and has lived in Yemen, one of the banned countries under Trump's administration.

When leaving the U.S. to Turkey during spring break in 2015, Ahmed was approached by two men in muscle t-shirts. They demanded that he follow them, and they opened their jackets to reveal guns and police badges. He stepped out of line and was interrogated about how much military training he’d received.

College freshman Mohammad Oulabi, who is a Syrian national, also said that his passport has been confiscated at the airport for inspection to make sure that it is not fake. 

Chemistry professor Zahra Fakhraai, who is from Iran, said last week that after she and her husband were accepted to American universities to earn their doctoral degrees, they were unable to get visas and had to move to Canada instead.

Students, even those from countries not listed on the immigration ban, said that they are worried about future plans.

Ahmed is planning to attend Yale School of Medicine next fall. But he is worried that his visa will be difficult to renew.

“Hopefully, I can if things get better and even out, I guess,” he said.

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