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Do the Right Thing

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Sometimes, you just have to do the right thing.

Even if it is not exactly the kind of case that you handle any more.

Even if it is not really even a case.

Right is right and wrong is wrong.

Two weeks ago, a young Iranian PhD student reached out to our office.  Somehow his call came to me.

We will call him Alireza.

On Tuesday that week, all was well.  He had a graduate assistantship at the school and was working diligently on his PhD.

On Wednesday, he received a cryptic email from the Department of State saying that his F1 student visa had been revoked.

No explanation, no reason, provided.

While we have heard of visas being revoked for international students who were arrested (not even convicted) of crimes like shoplifting or drunk driving having their visas revoked, we had never had a situation where the embassy simply unilaterally revoked a visa for no reason.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, less than 12 hours later, two FBI agents showed up to talk with Alireza.

And talk with him they did.

Alireza talked and talked and talked.  Never thought to call a lawyer to assist.

He told the agents his whole life story.  He even gave them his guesses as to why his visa might have been revoked.

The agents and Alireza even had a nice lunch together!

I was shocked.  Whenever I give talks at a mosque or school or church, I always tell people in this situation to say:

“I’d be happy to talk with you, but I want to have an attorney there with me.”

Alireza did not do this.  He kept on talking.

The two FBI agents reached out to the head of campus security to tell them of their nice chat with Alireza.  They also said that they had a special fund which could help pay for his plane ticket back to Iran!

The following day, the university sent Alireza an email and said that because his “authority to work in the U.S. had been terminated,” his graduate assistantship was over.

Alireza was crushed.  Without the stipend that he received, he would be unable to continue his studies.  He would have to drop out of school and return home to Iran.

This is when he finally decided to call our office.  Ugh!

After Alireza explained the situation, I thought that a big mistake had been made.

I did not think that anyone was really acting in bad faith (except maybe for the sneaky FBI agents), but that a simple lack of understanding of our immigration laws was happening.

A visa is simply your ticket into the U.S.  Your path into the country.

Once an F1 student arrives in the States, as long as they maintain their status by going to school and not violating the terms of their status, they can remain here even with an expired visa.

The school did not understand this.

So I wrote an email to the assistant provost.  Here’s what I said:

The sole reason provided for the termination of his assistantship was that the “[s]tudent lacks authorization to work in the United States.”

We are curious as to what is the legal basis for this claim.  The fact that [the student’s] visa was revoked does not impact his ability to maintain F1 status.  Nor does it affect his basis to work in an assistantship at [your university].   As long as his I-20 is valid, [Alireza] is allowed to stay in the United States, continue work towards his PhD and obtain Optional Practical Training.  The revocation of his visa has zero effect on this.  In theory, [Alireza] could stay in the United States through the end of his studies, obtain work authorization and then transition to lawful permanent resident status and eventually citizenship all with a revoked visa.

The visa was simply his ticket into the United States.

Without additional information, we believe that a grievous error has been made.  This error will obviously have a serious effect on [Alireza]’s life.  We are hopeful that the University will consult with an immigration lawyer to verify the information that I provided above.  We are hopeful to be able to work this out with the school but I must say that I believe the action taken by the school was so drastic as to open up [the school] to the possibility of litigation.  If word of shabby treatment of international students were to spread, it might make it very difficult for [the school] to recruit international students in the future.

Hopefully, it will never come to that and the school can revisit the hasty decision it made in terminating the assistantship.

Several days later, I heard from a fellow immigration attorney who handles a lot of employment-based immigration matters.  She knew that when it came to visa revocations, H1b workers were allowed to stay and work.  She wasn’t so sure about F1 students.

I did some quick research and found some USCIS guidance that showed that our position was correct.

Late last Friday, the school reversed itself.  Alireza was told that he could go back to his teaching on Monday.

When I got to call Alireza and tell him the news, we were both very happy.

I probably spent less than 2 hours on this.  And I didn’t charge Alireza a dime.

But this is why I do what I do.  This is why we fight.  To help change the trajectory of a person’s life.

And to keep them on the path towards Citizenship Island.

Peace.

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