Not Winning Hearts or Minds

On Sunday, I was online, browsing for cool science gifts for my nieces and doing my best to ignore  the pop-up ads for princess-themed everything.  Eventually, I found an outstanding chemistry set and set about to buy it.  At around the same time, I read a Washington Post story about a group of schoolgirls from Afghanistan, set to compete in a robotics competition in Washington, DC, but whose hopes were dashed when their visas were denied.

As an immigration lawyer and advocate for women’s rights, I find it hard to stomach that despite the adversity these girls have faced, in a country where women have few rights and educational opportunities, the U.S. Department of State was the entity that quashed their scientific dreams.

On a daily basis we see individuals from high-risk countries being denied visitor’s visas, in particular, young people, because of the perceived likelihood they will not in fact return to their home country when their visa expires.

When reviewing a visitor visa application, the consular officer must assess whether the applicant is likely to return home when the purpose of their travel to the U.S. is complete. No doubt, this can be difficult to determine. But in this case, the benefits to these girls outweighs the risks: in granting visitor visas, the U.S. could demonstrate its support for Afghan girls, support STEM education, and women in science.  Instead, unless something changes, these talented kids will have to participate in the competition via Skype.

All told, the U.S. will have spent, depending on which estimate you use, somewhere from $2.4 to $5 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s trillion with a T. A large part of the campaign in justifying the cost of the war was that we were going to “win hearts and minds.”  And then schoolgirls are refused the chance to compete in a robotics competition after overcoming significant obstacles in their math and science pursuits.  How does that win hearts and minds?

We are missing a real opportunity here.  What an inspiration that against all the odds, these girls have found a voice by building robots.  What a great learning opportunity this would have been for U.S. students, to see how kids from other countries have been able to accomplish so much with so few resources.

Despite the current climate, my hope is that these girls have an opportunity to excel at what they love doing best: building robots and that the U.S. has a chance to do the right thing and again serve as a beacon  for progress.

by Neena Dutta